Inspired by the open source software movement and the open sharing of knowledge and discoveries that occurred during the Human Genome Project, Brian Pollock and Troy Moore founded Huntsville, Ala.-based Open Biosystems in 2001 with a simple idea: They wanted to empower researchers of all kinds by providing open access to the tools and materials only larger organizations and companies could afford. Chief Editor Chris Anderson recently spoke with CTO and co-founder Moore about the company's business model.
DDN: What were the inspirations for starting Open Biosystems?
Moore: I think the biggest problem we have as an industry is dealing with intellectual property and this is not a problem that hasn't been solved in other industries. But in biotech it seems like everyone has the Golden Goose. No matter what kind of patent people hold, everyone believes that is the most valuable patent for others' research.
So our approach is to try to work with patent holders and tell them that we value their intellectual property and they should receive a return on it, but they [need to] be realistic about it. The only way a patent is going to be worth anything, is if you enable people with it. We take in a lot of licenses and try to work with the patent holders so they get a fair return.
DDN: What about Open Biosystems' pricing strategy for the market?
Moore: I want it to be something that every bench scientist can use.
For instance, with RNAi products, we've tried to take the approach that anybody at NIH on their benchtop should be able to do a genome screen. I think we are still a little way away from that right now.
But we are getting closer. Now, for a couple thousand dollars, people can screen several hundred to small thousands of genes. Our goal is to get the whole genome on their desktop, just like a microarray.
It used to be that you spent several thousand dollars just to buy the chips to do the whole genome, now it is much more affordable. Anyone at NIH can go and screen for gene expression on the whole genome and that is where we want to take RNAi.
DDN: What are the challenges of accomplishing this?
Moore: Well, right now, it is a gene-by-gene approach. Everyone sells individual genes. We are working on ways of multiplexing it, so the price per reaction comes way down. You will see us bring that to market in 2007. It is a mixture of several different technologies and several different licenses to make it happen.
It is based on the technology developed by the Yeast Deletion Consortium, which pioneered the idea that you can use molecular barcodes to look at very complex pools of, in their case, yeast. Some of our collaborators in developing the short hairpins have been yeast biologists, in previous lives, and had the foresight to suggest that we build this into the system from the get-go.
These are early days and there will be several publications that accompany the launch of the product. It reminds me of the early days of microarrays.
But there are lots of interesting things you can do with it and those things will evolve over the coming one or two years.
DDN: Are there any other companies you compete against working under your business model?
Moore: No. At least none that I know of. Obviously, all the tool providers have to deal with intellectual property, and they go out and license different technologies. I think the difference is really in the rationale for doing that.
I think for some of the bigger players it is more defensive. They are looking at it as: if they create a big market, they don't want to get sued.
Ours is a little more offensive. We want to put these things together because we know that our customers would be limited if all of this is not taken care of up front. And we want to be as solid and clear as possible. We do have to offer licenses to people where they have to sign and take a separate license from [a third party]. I want those terms clearly displayed from the get-go, so there is no ambiguity. I want them to look at one piece of paper and they can say yes or no, they'll take the license and it's not going to be a six-month negotiation with them.
DDN: Your current strength is in genetic materials, can you see a time when Open Biosystems might branch out into other materials?
Moore: Yes. Our clear strength is in managing genome collections of material: genetic content. I don't think we will go far afield of that. There are a lot of very exciting things developing in the community that shows what we need to do the next round of—understanding how genes are regulated, how microRNAs are regulating different genes—so there is quite a bit of opportunity there.
But you won't see us going into the restriction enzyme market or the DNA polymerase market—those are well serviced. The genetic content is a niche we have found that we belong in.