The complex field of systems biology might be in need of some clarification. Cambridge, MA-based Selventa has been renamed from its former moniker Genstruct as part of an effort to clarify to pharmaceutical companies and others in the life sciences industry how the firm uses computational methods to help its customers match patients with the best drugs.
In fact, the new name, Selventa, comes from the Finnish verb that literally means “to clarify,” said David de Graaf, the company’s chief scientist. For those of you who had not even heard of Genstruct, the firm has been around since 2002 and has raised venture capital from well-known life sciences investors Flagship Ventures and Pappas Ventures.
To hear de Graaf and his colleagues, their company is doing a lot more than undergoing a name change. (They also say that the company is already profitable, which leads me to believe that this new name is in no way a last-ditch effort to reinvent a struggling operation.) The firm is stepping up efforts publish information about its research and technology, having kept the details of how its software works largely under wraps in the past. And the firm is also offering its customers licenses to use its software in their labs, in addition to charging fees for services it provides.
Selventa is also looking to structure its deals with drug companies in a way that rewards the firm for the successes its partners achieve with its technology. This is a major change from the company’s previous focus on making money on a fee-for-service basis, company executives say.
“We want to put our money where our mouth is,” de Graaf says. “We obviously need to [do business] in a way that keeps the doors open and the lights on, but we want to be paid based on success because we very much believe that we can help our partners achieve success.”
Selventa’s technology could accelerate and improve the prospects of the notoriously long and expensive journeys taken to develop a new drug. It takes around $1 billion and 10 years for a company to bring a new drug to market, and the high cost includes expenses from the majority of compounds that fail at some point in the development cycle. The firm’s technology is intended to help drug developers pair optimal treatments with patients—before expensive clinical research such as drug trials are done.
The company’s computational methods use existing data from patients with specific diseases. It then aims to stratify patient populations based on different drivers or mechanisms of disease. The firm builds computer models of the disease for each patient group from this information. With these models of disease, the company helps drug developers to decide on the best potential treatments for specific populations of patients.
A key benefit that Selventa’s models provide is the ability to predict potential drug interactions at an earlier stage than others can, says de Graaf, who joined the company earlier this year after a series of posts at major drug makers such as Boehringer-Ingelheim, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca.
While Selventa’s technology has unique features, there are a number of analytics firms, contract research organizations, and drug developers that are applying computational methods to streamline drug development. Locally, Cambridge-based GNS Healthcare (formerly Gene Network Sciences) has used its computational system to help drug developers such as Weston, MA-based Biogen Idec (NASDAQ:BIIB) to identify biomarkers for patients with certain diseases. Also, Cambridge-based Merrimack Pharmaceuticals says it uses its own biochemical models to help develop treatments for autoimmune diseases and cancer.
Now Selventa is also enabling its drug-company customers to use its software code under licensing deals to build their own patient data-driven models of diseases. This clearly shows that the firm has enough confidence in its technology to make it open for customers to use and customize for themselves. Meantime, this licensing model gives the firm an additional source of revenue to expand its business.
Apparently, the firm had been criticized for not providing the level of transparency about its technology as it now does. “The knock on us was that we weren’t transparent,” said Louis Latino, the company’s executive vice president of sales and marketing. “We didn’t publish hardly at all in academia. Our methodology was closed; we didn’t share any [information about] how we got to an answer.”
Latino, who joined the company in 2008, says that he has been looking for ways to scale up the business since he arrived. The firm is going to focus now on gaining more business from pharmaceutical companies, which are already its primary customers. However, he also said that the firm is open to doing business with mid-sized and small biotech firms, and it already has an existing customer focused on consumer products.
Even though Selventa has been in business for eight years and is already profitable, it’s difficult for the company to point to existing customer success stories because its current contracts don’t allow it to name names of its partners to the press. Indeed, the company plans to gain such authorization to talk about its customers by name in the future.
That would help the company provide further transparency into its business and—as its new name would promote—to clarify for the business community how its technology aids in the development of new treatments.
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