Will scientists managing the results of automated experiments embrace bioinformatics?
The 19th-century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, the so-called father of genetics, wouldn't recognize today's genomics research. Mendel spent years studying the inherited characteristics of pea plants, whereas today's high-speed robots zip through the same workload in a matter of hours. "The old image of scientists in lab coats with safety glasses holding these miniplungers is gone," says Richard P. Kivel, CEO of MolecularWare Inc. "Now the entire process is done 1,000 at a time by a robot."
Molecular biologist and company founder Seth Taylor came up with the concept for a software product to boost researchers' ability to track the results of their highly automated experiments. Until recently, for example, scientists who were mapping the human genome recorded their groundbreaking data in crude Microsoft Excel spreadsheets or even in marbled composition notebooks similar to those used by the average high school student. As lab robots became faster, such tracking methods were increasingly unsatisfactory -- opening the door for MolecularWare.
Taylor worked with a team to design sophisticated software that could capture and store all the data generated by a lab that performs drug-development research or other genetics studies. Results from lab robots and scanners that conduct the experiments flow directly into MolecularWare's software, eliminating the arduous task of data entry. "Now you're able to use one software application to run multiple robots and track thousands of experiments across all of those robots," Kivel says. Scientists using the software can check for errors, cross-reference other experiments, and easily manipulate and analyze the data. Plus, researchers who are working on an experiment can collaborate with colleagues on another continent. With the software selling for $30,000 to $50,000 per seat, MolecularWare reached $400,000 in sales for 2001.
As pharmaceutical companies pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of new drugs, the newly christened bioinformatics sector -- consisting of companies like MolecularWare that help scientists scale their growing mountains of data -- is attracting attention from investors and research labs alike. By one estimate, the U.S. market for such applications will reach $3 billion by 2004. "It's a fascinating space to be in because it's moving so fast," says Kivel.