Graphically illustrating genetic data drives expansion of weightless software exports


If biologists were also computer science experts, there would be no need for Biomatters Ltd.’s software.

But because they’re not coding genius’s, the Auckland-based company’s programs, which put an easy to use, robust and highly visual interface on top of massive amounts of genetic data, has become the software of choice around global universities and research institutions.

“Our approach is to make the interface very intuitive, very visual,” says Biomatters chief executive, Candace Toner. Such an approach now sees its proprietary Geneious software application used in more than 1000 universities, including the world’s top ranked 25, as well as being one of 10 finalists in the University of Auckland Business School’s Entrepreneurs’ Challenge for 2010.

The private company’s expansion is a long way from the first, free release of Geneious in August 2006 by some Auckland University academics; when it quickly become the number one downloaded piece of scientific software that year.

Realising the program’s popularity, and with help from Auckland incubator Icehouse, angel investors, NZTE and NZVIF, Toner was brought onboard in early 2007 and an official business plan put together.

“I went to the States, started talking, calling, cold calling,” she says. The growth of the company has been a year on year doubling in business that now employs 20 people, including 11 program developers.

Part of Biomatters’ business plan was to provide initial, single use licences to university students on an initial free 14 day trial. “That got them hooked,” says Toner, “and they told their friends and it carried on up to the laboratories themselves. Today, still, we do very little advertising, it is mostly word of mouth.”

Toner says that as those students have moved into the corporate and scientific institution worlds, they’ve continued to demand the use of Geneious as an extremely important tool to enable them to carry out their jobs more efficiently.

An important part of the company’s presentation is to price its products in $US; as initially, “that’s where the low hanging fruit is based.”

A single perpetual user licence costs $US$795, a basic university pack costs $25,000 and an about to be launched enterprise version of the software with “more horsepower, storage capacity and parallel computing” will cost $100,000.

Toner says the company’s already booked several pre-sales of the enterprise system off the back of successful trials of the beta version, while there’s other people in the pipeline who have little option but to wait for the software to become available.

All the software is downloaded from website, with no burning or packaging and shipping of a physical product.

“It’s all bits and bytes, we’re a very weightless export,” she says.

The company’s about to open an American sales office in Newark, New Jersey to service the heavy concentration of institutions in north-east U.S.A, and intends opening a second office in the same country on the west coast in mid-2011. This market currently provides 50% of the company’s revenue, while Europe, which generates 35% of its income will receive a dedicated sales office and team within the next 18 months.

Toner says it is important that its developers and R&D team are New Zealand based. “There’s no logical reason we should move, and one big advantage is that we can offset time zones by also being able to provide customer support from our home base,” she says.

“In the USA you need door knockers in the market, and we also want some physical presence to help service the market.”

The Asian market, though ripe with opportunity for Biomatters, has some logistical challenges that are yet to be overcome.

Because China doesn’t yet allow its citizens or institutions to purchase overseas products by credit card, and because Biomatters doesn’t ship any physical products, Geneious has not gained a foothold in the Middle Kingdom. Conversely, in Japan the government dictates to universities what applications they are allowed to purchase. Consequently, Japanese biologists are forced to use home-grown software packages that Toner (and many Japanese scientists) believe are inferior.

The programs are written in Java, which allows Geneious to be used across Apple, Windows and Linux operating platforms; and unlike some competing systems, scientists don’t need to know how to program software in order to be able to use the system.

Part of the software is an ability to search multiple genetic databases around the world; which is a huge advantage for a biologist looking at a HIV strain for example.

“We have lawyers and intellectual property experts who have bought our Geneious purely for that function alone,” Toner says.

By providing a visualisation of data, “we’re providing inspirational software for biologists,” she says. “We want to have software so that biologists can do there research. They understand how to drag and drop, a left click a right click. Their job shouldn’t be about programming.”

Biomatters has been self-funding, bootstrapping its way beyond the start-up phase.

Though it has had very strong earnings revenue, because money has continually been ploughed back into the company, it hasn’t been profitable as such.

Toner says winning the capital funding prize from the Entrepreneurs’ Challenge would allow it to accelerate growth even faster and contract the establishment of its sales teams in the USA and Europe.

“That would allow us to make more money, faster,” she says.

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About sticknz

sticK is by Peter Kerr, a writer for hire. I have a broad science and technology background and interest, with an original degree in agricultural science. My writing speciality is making the complex understandable. I am available for outside consultancy work, and for general discussions of converting a good idea into something positive
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