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Australasian Biotechnology (backfiles)
ISSN: 1036-7128
Vol. 10, Num. 2, 2000, pp. 21-22
Untitled Document

Australasian Biotechnology, Vol. 10 No. 2, 2000, pp. 21-22


Tim Littlejohn

Code Number: au00019

I’ve been to hundreds of conferences. They get to be much the same after a while. As a kid I used to sneak in, curious about science. As a young researcher I went to learn about the process of science. As a scientist I went to hear about the latest developments. As a service provider, I go to chair sessions on bioinformatics and man trade displays. This meeting (Bio2000, the international Biotechnology Association’s huge annual meeting ( html) was to set the stage for all the ones that follow.

I arrived in hotel in Boston USA late on the evening of Monday 27 March, tired after a 24 hour trip from Sydney Australia. Man, that is a dreadful flight. Four anti-inflammatory eyedrops later I tuned into the TV and learned that protesters had been barricading the conference and had dumped a truckload of soy-beans (presumably genetically engineered ones) on the entrance steps. Amused, I donned my battle dress (the eBioinformatics team shirt) and ran outside to grab a taxi to the convention. On the way out the reception desk gave me a phone message to call David from eBioinformatics on the Banana, which I dutifully did (the Banana is code name for one of our mobile phones).

The taxi dumped me into a scene that could have been from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: helicopters hovering overhead, searchlights sweeping the night sky, police and fire trucks on every corner, traffic mayhem. I made my way to the entrance and bumped into two heavily armed policemen. Conference registration is closed? No entrance at all this evening? But what about my colleagues locked inside?

I raced outside and called David on the Banana again, this time from a public phone on the street corner opposite. Ten minutes and some social engineering later I was inside wearing a guest pass David had kept tucked up his sleeve for such occasions.

The rest of the meeting was just as exciting. The conference attracted the usual collection of the hundreds of the world’s top names in biotechnology. As the protesters pointed out, biotech is back, and despite some rockiness, NASDAQ proves this. With multiple simultaneous back-to-back sessions and seemingly a thousand trade displays, it was hard to know what to do first. All my time was occupied by one of three things so I’ll talk about those: presenting in sessions, manning the eBioinformatics trade display, and talking to suppliers.

First up I chaired the bioinformatics session entitled Bioinformatics - the Brain of Biotech. The session was remarkably well attended, thanks to the quality of the presenters and the hot topic (bioinformatics - the use of computers in the biotechnology discovery process). We must have been doing something right as the session was picked up the next day by biotech newswires such as BioSpace (”)

Andrej Sali from Rockefeller University spoke first about “Comparative protein structure modeling of genes and genomes”, followed by Tony Kerlavage from Celera Genomics on “ Biological Knowledge and the Future of the Life Science Industry”. Bruno Gaeta from eBioinformatics spoke on “BioNavigator: an integrated web front-end for bioinformatics analysis” and Jim Ostell from NCBI (National Centre for Biotechnology Information, USA) finished with a talk on “Genomes - Crossroads for Data”. It was a session that spanned molecules to genomes, user interfaces and integration for academics through to big pharmaceutical companies, small and huge corporate entities, medium and large government organisations. In one way it was a whirlwind tour and random sample of where the human genome project is and where it is going. It also highlighted how computers are pivotal to this and other biotech initiatives. “All experiments start out, go through, or end up with bioinformatics”, according to the session’s chairman.

Next up I was very lucky to be able to participate in the “Bioportals” session. In this session a panel presented their views on what a Bioportal is. Panelists were Neil de Crescenzo (Chemdex, a business-to-business ecommerce company), Mark Edwards (Recombinant Capital, investors), Bruno Larvol (Cognia, a bioinformatics company), Karen Ferrell (Healtheatre, a video content company), Jerry Williamson (Techex, a technology transfer company), Tim Littlejohn (eBioinformatics, a bioinformatics application service provider).

What struck me most about both these sessions was their popularity - the bioinformatics session was full with three times as many people “denied access” left standing, frustrated, outside. The Bioportals session was the same. The company selling audio tapes of the bioinformatics session sold out completely - and they didn’t tape the Bioportals session (I bet they are kicking themselves for that). Fortunately Healtheatre made a video of the session so we can expect to see that streaming down the net soon.

The rest of the meeting was spent on our trade display answering questions about BioNavigator ( or deep in discussions with suppliers and partners. This is a great time to be in a bioinformatics company; biotech and the internet are booming, and eBioinformatics as an internet-based bioinformatics application service provider (ASP) is well placed to make the most of this in the biotech arena. Having a ten-year pedigree (sprung out of the Australian-grown ANGIS bioinformatics service, established in 1991) is one of eBioinformatics’ competitive strengths. Indeed listening to the audio tapes from the session Instant Information - how the internet is changing biotechnology indicates that the company’s approach is right on track. The need for robust, well-integrated, broad, affordable bioinformatics systems has never been greater. The growth of commercial bioinformatics ASPs is a testimony to this, and the history of ANGIS and its sister organisations in academia (many of which are members of the EMBnet consortium - ( shows this concept is here to stay. eBioinformatics is not alone, as other groups such as Lion Bioscience ( have spun out of EMBnet. eBioinformatics is growing through partnerships with suppliers like Lion and many others - the breadth of software and databases on the BioNavigator site is testimony to this.

The Bio2000 meeting lasted three days. Although I only went to two sessions out of dozens, these few days helped confirm in my mind that biotech is back with a vengeance and that bioinformatics will be a key part of the growth this, the third, industrial revolution.

As I packed up my hotel room on the last night in preparation for my flight back to Sydney I tuned into the TV one last time. There, almost prophetically, was a documentary on the gold rush in the Canadian Klondike. Biotech in the year 2000 must feel exactly like the gold rushes of the previous millennia. I felt like I had just spent three days on the gold fields. It’s a privilege to be able to be able to provide the picks and shovels to the miners in this gold rush.

Copyright 2000 - Australasian Biotechnology

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