The Opposite of Hula Hoops

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By davefeatherstone
February 26, 2002

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The original Celera is gone. The ticker symbol is the same, the web site address is the same, there is still a building in Maryland with Celera on the side. But Celera is gone. For the last decade or so, it has become increasingly obvious that the DNA sequence data, along with sophisticated bioinformatic analysis, would be an essential commodity of biomedical science. It stood to reason then, that anyone who controlled this access to this commodity would be 'in the sweet spot'. Celera aimed to be THE pipeline for genomic data. It was a great idea. I said why I thought so in several posts a couple years ago. Unfortunately, some bad ideas -- like hula hoops -- work. And some good ideas, like Celera Genomics, didn't work. CRA is 'the opposite of hula hoops'.

Why didn't Celera work?

1) Well, OK, I lied. It did work -- sort of. Celera Genomics is actually a relatively successful bioinformatic data provider. They stunned the scientific world by sequencing (most of) and assembling the human genome in record time. As a result, and because of subsequent mouse sequence, they have signed up a number of subscribers paying big bucks for access to this information. Furthermore, sequencing time and costs continue to drop, making more data easier to add. If Celera cut the cash burn, their bioinformatic/sequence database business might actually be modestly profitable.

2) But Celera is not THE pipeline to the genome. Perhaps partly as a result of Venter's competitive boasting, the publicly-funded human genome consortium sped up their efforts and crossed the finish line about the same time. And since the publicly-funded data is available free, with analysis tools, to anyone with an internet connection...

Furthermore, big pharma (an important potential deep-pocket customer for Celera) has been poking at the genome for years, along with hundreds of other researchers. Basically, the bottleneck is not access to good putative drug targets, but rather the drug development process itself. Why pay for stuff one hasn't got the time to use?

Plus, Celera never really had any apparent edge in bioinformatics -- the science and tools of actually deciphering the long string of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs that make up the genome. Sequence data is pointless without an understanding of what it means biologically. And unfortunately, Celera seems no more ahead in this regard than the rest of us. Anyone wanna buy this book? I'm sure it's great reading. Yea, it's in a language nobody understands -- but hey: once you figure it out I guarantee it's a great read!

3) Celera's market is limited. The average Joe is not sending in biological samples for sequencing. The doctor on the corner can't draw blood and send it off to see if you may be prone to genetically-linked arthritis. Celera's not hooked up to tell you whether you're one of the folks for which lipitor will have nasty side effects and minimal efficacy. There are a few ultra-competitive wealthy research groups who want an edge and are willing to pay. Recently, there have been a few papers in high-profile journals from groups mining Celera's databases. But most academics can't afford it, and many companies don't see a need. Celera can't patent the genome. It's just there. All Celera is selling are *glimpses* of vast tracts of unexplored land. But most folks just want a little quarter acre they can *own* and build a two-bathroom house on. And for most the quickest way is to just hook up the wagon and wander out. Sure, it might not be the best spot possible. But it's just fine, thanks.

4) But most of all, Celera didn't 'work' because the bar for success was set too high. Celera can't match the hype.

Celera is not going to become the next General Electric or Pfizer by simply selling sequence data. And unfortunately, Venter's boasting got investors so worked up into a lather that GE or PFE is what CRA investors want. The only way to get that big doing biology is to make drugs. Thus, I suppose, Celera's shift to 'drug development'.

But c'mon -- drug development?! This is hardly unclaimed territory, and something for which neither Applera nor Celera have demonstrated expertise. The rationale doesn't seem that much different than a blueprint publisher suddenly deciding to take up high-rise construction.

Why not bioinformatics software development? Biological database management and design? Sequence-based diagnostics? Are they trying to tell me they've learned nothing useful or saleable building the largest computing facility in the world and assembling/managing the most complex database in existence?

Why burn the money doing something the company isn't cut out to do?

There is *still* a desperate need in the biomedical community for bioinformatics resources. There is plenty of room for innovative commercial products that don't try to compete with public resources. There is a huge gap where well-designed biomedical information infrastructure should be. There is, in my opinion, a giant market for tools and information that make science faster and easier. The world wide web, fer chrissakes, was invented as a way for physicists to simply swap & view data. Imagine if it was patented and controlled by a company. Imagine if Celera built on their strengths instead of threw money at misdirected dreams.

I don't want another drug company. I want Celera back.

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