Last Friday, we interviewed Fool community member and Soapbox.com writer ElricSeven about Celera (NYSE: CRA) and competitor DoubleTwist, Inc. Today, we're very happy to have Robert Williamson, the chief operating officer of DoubleTwist, with us to answer questions about his company. This interview will run in a two-part series, with part two running tomorrow.
TMF: Robert, the following questions are from The Motley Fool community, one smart group of people, so there are some zingers in here. Are you ready for them?
TMF: Excellent. First, Mr. Williamson, please provide our readers with some background on yourself, a quick summary of DoubleTwist and its mission, and your role at the company.
Williamson: I am the chief operating officer of DoubleTwist, and I joined the company in the summer of 1999. My background is in business and economics. Most recently, I was a partner at The Boston Consulting Group working in both the firm's healthcare and e-commerce practices. Previous to that, I received my MBA from Stanford, worked at the Federal Reserve on monetary policy and rate setting, and ran several small businesses.
DoubleTwist's mission is to empower life scientists. Our approach to that mission involves using leading-edge technology and bioinformatics tools to reduce the cost and complexity of conducting genomic research. We provide access to a great deal of our solutions as an Application Service Provider (ASP) through DoubleTwist.com.
TMF: Thank you! Onto our first question. At www.doubletwist.com, the company states that it "provides research environments that leverage information technology and the World Wide Web to simplify and accelerate genomic discovery." Given this, who do you view as your most meaningful competition? Universities? Research labs? Companies such as Millennium Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: MLNM), Human Genome Sciences (Nasdaq: HGSI) and Celera (NYSE: CRA)? And why?
Williamson: Interesting question. Actually, everyone on your list could be either a customer, competitor, or partner of DoubleTwist. In fact, Millennium Pharmaceuticals is a customer of ours, and another company that is often considered by outsiders as a competitor -- Incyte Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: INCY) -- is a partner of ours through their Genome Systems division.
I believe that we are unique in the way we view our "competition" -- that is, that anyone that is a potential competitor is also a potential partner. As an aggregator of tools and information for life scientists, we prefer to focus on identifying potential partnership opportunities that will serve our customers.
TMF: This next question is from a community member at the Fool who I believe owns shares of Celera. What do you think? Either way, they ask a great question. Here it is: Why would companies or academic institutions subscribe to DoubleTwist's database rather than Celera's, especially if DoubleTwist's is based on publicly shared information from the Human Genome Project and Celera's is more refined because it is moving faster?
Williamson: There are a couple of reasons why customers are interested in buying our genomic database over Celera's. One is cost. Our database is significantly less expensive than Celera's for both corporate and academic customers. I believe this partly reflects how much more work Celera had to do to create its database.
Celera has essentially created a parallel version of the raw data being generated by the Human Genome Project; in fact many credit Celera for speeding up the Human Genome Project's efforts by engaging in their own private efforts. The process of sequencing and compiling sequence fragments generates the raw data, and this is a time-consuming and expensive process.
We took a different approach. We wanted to reveal where the genes are in the human genome, and what function those genes might have. This is a logical next step, of course, after generating the raw data, and we felt there was enough good information available in the public domain to initiate the effort of annotating this data.
The difference in the two types of data (one -- the raw sequence, the other -- an annotated sequence) is not trivial. The difference is similar to either having a large amount of letters strung together, in no particular order, and being asked to read it, or being handed a novel with words, sentences, punctuation, and appended Cliff Notes telling you what the text really means. From what I can tell, Celera is not selling an annotated database yet. Customers who have seen our human genome data are very receptive.
TMF: Along those same lines, are you targeting much the same customers as a company like Celera, namely major pharmaceuticals and biotech, or are you trying to achieve more of a volume business, with more subscriptions to your database at a lower average price per subscription? What, in the end, are your largest target customers?
Williamson: We have products that can serve large pharmaceutical companies, small biotechnology organizations, as well as academic and non-profit research centers. The basic premise is that we have an aggregation of information and functionality that can benefit life scientists wherever they work. How they access that is up to them.
The first option is to use DoubleTwist.com. This is the solution for individuals or companies that cannot, or do not want to, invest in the significant hardware and associated overhead needed to host powerful bioinformatics software. Thus, we host that multimillion-dollar infrastructure and provide access to it via the Web as an ASP. A portion of DoubleTwist.com's functionality is available for free to our registered members, and users can opt to subscribe for access to greater functionality, including tools that access the annotated human genome database.
The second option is for a customer to buy components of DoubleTwist.com (software tools or data created using those tools) for installation on their own computer infrastructure. This latter solution is geared toward larger organizations and is sold bundled with subscriptions to higher-level functionality on DoubleTwist.com. These subscriptions allow a customer's scientists to monitor the daily updates to the data on the website, similar to a news tracking service -- but for breaking discoveries in genomics.
TMF: What specific competitive advantage does DoubleTwist possess over potential rivals who may seek to annotate the public Human Genome Project database in a similar manner? What specific tools does DoubleTwist believe it holds that are superior to those of the competition?
Williamson: Our competitive advantage is associated with our bioinformatics and software development expertise.
For the human genome annotation project, we leveraged our expertise to create a sophisticated, multi-step genomic analysis pipeline to process the genomic data and reveal genes and functional information. We worked for many months to refine this pipeline so that we would have high confidence in the resulting analysis. The pipeline contains, for example, multiple gene prediction algorithms, as well as analyses against gene index databases, one of which we created using our clustering and alignment tools.
Further, we created a distributed processing system that allows us to complete the annotation quickly. This system was developed over the past year and will be used to continuously process new data in a high-throughput fashion.
And finally, unlike other providers of genomic databases, we provide our information in a data format that allows customers to seamlessly integrate the data into their own proprietary systems.
I know we've received a lot of attention about our human genome database, but I want to stress that this is just one component of our solution. Annotating the available human genome project data was just one way we saw to add value to what we provide on DoubleTwist.com, and we knew that we had the appropriate bioinformatics expertise to do that successfully. But at the core, we are focused on providing an integrated research environment with easy-to-use but sophisticated functionality serving the needs of life scientists.
Specifically, we have created an easy-to-use, "point-and-click" Web environment where a moderately sophisticated user can perform genomic analysis (even high school biology students are using DoubleTwist.com). All of the work is done behind the scenes; our automated research agents handle the burden of integrating multiple databases and applying multiple algorithms to answer a specific scientific question.
Fundamentally, we believe DoubleTwist.com is unique because we:
- aggregate a broad range of disparate information -- including data, tools, scientific journals -- from multiple sources, including those we develop, those of our partners, and those that we license from third parties;
- offer relatively easy-to-use research tools (point-and-click "research agents" and sophisticated visualization and data-mining tools);
- automatically monitor changes in our data sources, and notify users when new information that is relevant to their research is available;
- do not patent data (therefore we don't have IP issues with our customers);
- are "Swiss Neutral" in that we aggregate content and tools from other companies and organizations offering best-in-class solutions for life scientists;
- provide a cost-effective solution that scales to any size organization's needs;
- identify specific goods relevant for wet lab work (contextual e-commerce), including genomic clones, based on research results.
TMF: OK, we're half-through, so it's time for a really tough question. A stumper. From a reader: How do you really expect your company to make it in the biotech field with a name that connotes softserve chocolate and vanilla ice cream swirls? Or is that the plan? The genetic manipulation of softserve everywhere? If this is the plan, will you sign a partnership with Warren Buffett and Dairy Queen?
Williamson: Huh? Warren Buffett covered in ice cream? Seriously, we had an internal contest to find a catchy name that was not being cyber-squatted and DoubleTwist won. We like the name a lot.
Tomorrow, Mr. Williamson will answer the remainder of the questions from the Fool community that we presented to him, including: Will DoubleTwist submit its completed analysis to a peer review journal as the HGP, Celera, and others are doing? Will DoubleTwist move beyond annotating the human genome to other animals and plants? What are the largest challenges facing the industry? Who are the men and women working at DoubleTwist? Would it consider partnering with Celera? And more -- because we want to know more about this company based on its own merits, and in relation to our Celera investment.
Until tomorrow, commiserate on the Rule Breaker Companies discussion board or the Celera board (we don't have a DoubleTwist board yet, since it's currently a private company), enjoy this "Fun & Folly -- Not Really News" column -- Pepsi to Advertise Inside Human Genome -- and be Foolish!
-- Jeff Fischer, TMF Jeff on the discussion boards