SCIENCE & ENGINEERING NEWS
Somers, N.Y. — Anticipating a market that is expected to grow to more than $9 billion by 2003, International Business Machines Corp. has created a life-sciences business unit and set aside $100 million to develop technology to process the abundance of new information being generated about the human genetic code.
IBM said the mission of the new unit is to develop tools and systems that will allow biotechnology, genomic, pharmaceutical, agriscience and other life-sciences industries manage and analyze data.
“Life sciences is one of the emerging markets at the heart of IBM’s growth strategy,” John M. Thompson, senior vice president and software group executive, said in a prepared statement. In his new role as IBM vice chairman, effective Sept. 1, Mr. Thompson will be responsible for IBM’s efforts to exploit life sciences and other emerging-growth areas, the company said.
IBM estimates the market for information technology for life sciences activities will increase to more than $9 billion in three years from $3.5 billion today.
Driving the demand is the explosive growth of research, IBM said. For example, the human genome database – the sequence of the human genome and the collection of genes with links to biological and disease information – comprises the equivalent of 150 million pages of information, and the volume of life-sciences data is doubling every six months, IBM believes.
“All of this genetic data is worthless without the information technology that can help scientists manage and analyze it to unlock the pathways that will lead to new cures for many of today’s diseases,” said Caroline Kovac, vice president of the new life-sciences unit.
Researchers applauded the news. “It is significant because any improvement in technology leads to more effective research,” said Jeff Picarello, a spokesman for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a leading researcher on cancer, DNA and molecular biology. “We are very dependent on technology. It makes it easier for scientists all over the world to complete this research. To make such a large investment, by a firm not typically involved in the sciences, shows the importance of this,” he said.
However, it is difficult to compile firm estimates for the fledgling industry. “This area is so new, it’s hard to find an analyst who covers it,” Kovac said. She said IBM’s estimate included a broad range of health care-related information technology markets.
By contrast, the investment bank Oscar Gruss expects the market for bioinformatics services to surpass $2 billion within five years, although its estimate just included genomic research. “If we take the massive generation of biological data as a starting place, bioinformatics technology enables the extraction of information that can be used in commercial drug discovery,” Oscar Gruss analysts said in a report. “These analyses can enable or greatly accelerate drug target identification efforts.”
IBM earmarked the $100 million investment to develop software and partnerships to accelerate the work companies are doing to interpret the newly mapped human genetic code.
Among life-sciences projects IBM already has underway is development of DiscoveryLink, meant to help researchers access and extract data from multiple sources to solve complex medical-research problems.
IBM also is building Blue Gene, a supercomputer that the company claims is 100 times faster than any currently available. In December, IBM committed $100 million to this five-year research project to advance the state of the art for supercomputing for biological uses. In addition, IBM has compiled a protein dictionary called Bio-Dictionary that is intended to accelerate the understanding of protein shapes and functions.
Some say IBM was late to the game, having arrived after rivals Compaq Computer and Sun Microsystems, both of which have formed partnerships with genome companies.
“You can see who the missing person is,” said John Couch, chief executive of DoubleTwist.com, a private bioinformatics company that has linked with Sun Microsystems, in an interview. “IBM is basically saying, “We don’t want to be left behind.'”
IBM’s $100 million investment is paltry compared with the money others are pumping into the industry, Couch said. For example, MPM Capital, a venture capital firm with a stake in DoubleTwist, recently raised $600 million to start a new bioinformatics fund, he said.
“Any kind of technology that accelerates or expedites computer power is very much needed in the biotech field,” said Sushant Kumar, an analyst at independent research firm Mehta Partners. “It is going to slow you down tremendously if you don’t have the right program. This market is going to grow.”
In May, IBM signed a $1.5 billion, 10-year outsourcing agreement with France’s Aventis SA to provide technical support for pharmaceutical and agriscience research and development. Aventis, a manufacturer of drugs, insecticides and herbicides, was created last year by the merger of Germay’s Hoechst AG and France’s Rhone Poulenc SA.