August 28, 2013

Biotech Vendors Compute to Compete

Tiffany Trader

A longtime staple of government labs and research universities, HPC is branching out into private sector. In fact, commercial use now accounts for most growth at the high-end of computing.

The democratization of HPC has been aided by falling hardware prices – the result of commodity pricing and Moore’s Law-style process shrinks – the proliferation of GPU computing, and the rise of cloud-based HPC capability, from companies like Amazon Web Services, Cycle Computing, R Systems, among others.

BACcel Automated microscopy – Source

Life science has long been a key vertical in HPC, and biotech companies are well-positioned to leverage the benefits of more accessible high-performance computing tools. The ability to compress weeks of modeling into days or hours improves outcomes and boosts time to market. Three firms – Accelerate Diagnostics, Translational Genomics Research Institute and Kela Medical – that exemplify the new business model were profiled by BizTechMagazine.

“If HPC is suited to your application, you can do crazy stuff with it — that’s why we’re exploiting it,” observed Accelerate Diagnostics’ Software Engineer Paul Richards.

Accelerate is perfecting a new way to identify and treat bacterial infections. The company’s multi-feature instrument, BACcel, uses automated image analysis software connected to a purpose-built cluster to help medical professionals rapidly identify pathogens and determine the best course of antibiotic treatment. Normally, this diagnostic process would take 24 to 48 hours, but Accelerate’s system requires only 6 hours or less.

To satisfy its computing requirements, Accelerate partnered with PSSC Labs. The HPC vendor furnished the Arizona-based biotech firm with a Tesla-based cluster designed to meet the company’s image processing needs. The cluster has four servers, each comprised of Intel Xeon E5 processors, a NVIDIA Tesla K10 GPU, plus memory, a network interface and high-speed storage.

By fast-tracking R&D, the HPC cluster is helping Accelerate move more quickly toward clinical trials, FDA filing and commercial release.

James Lowey, vice president of technology at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), explains there are entry-level HPC systems priced just right for SMBs. What used to cost $20-$30 million is now around $10,000, he says. The user can get 512 cores, storage and fast networking in a turnkey system.

Lowey provides some advice to companies looking to upgrade their compute: ensure that the workload justifies the capital expense. He also recommends leveraging the expertise and experience of a trustworthy partner.

That’s what Kela Medical of Ontario is doing. Like many startups, Kela Medical accesses high-performance computing capabilities via a cloud service. Kela is partnering with the Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform (SOSCIP), run by the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) in collaboration with IBM and seven Ontario universities. The program helps qualified SMBs develop and commercialize products for health, smart infrastructure and agile-computing apps. Through an arrangement with SOSCIP, Kela has cloud-based access to IBM’s Cognos business intelligence tools and SPSS predictive analytics products and storage space.

Kela uses the HPC modeling and simulation tools to develop and test its pHR Card System. The smart card uses flash-memory chip technology to store a patient’s entire personal health record and sync with healthcare management systems.

The opening up of HPC is a result of a confluence of factors, including the growth of big data. Steve Conway, research vice president at IDC, observes that HPC has been “doing big data forever,” but the increased focus on high-end analytics and an increasingly competitive marketplace are pushing more businesses, including startups and SMBs, to adopt HPC solutions. Compute to compete is the new modus operandi and it’s only just begun.

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