Toronto firm does big data chemistry in the cloud

If you’re a medical researcher looking for antibodies, sometimes Googling isn’t enough. Or rather, it’s too much. 

In 2009, 1DegreeBio was started by a group of medical and technology-savvy entrepreneurs to become what they now say is the world’s largest independent antibody database. With a smart search engine that sifts through nearly a million products from different suppliers, scientists can simply enter in the name of the antibody they’re looking for and get a list of reputable companies supplying it.

Buying and selling antibodies? Yes, it may sound unusual, but in the past 10 years or so, it’s become a roughly $1 billion a year industry, according to Ron Yeung, CTO of 1DegreeBio.

“It could take you months to produce this antibody in your own lab,” says Yeung. “And there were a lot of people that said, ‘hey, there’s a need for pre-made antibodies for researchers to purchase rather than waiting all their time,’ and so people started these companies selling these research antibodies.”

So, how would you find these companies? Well, in the past, you Googled them. But the problem with that search engine, he says, is the sheer amount of filtering you’d need to do to get to the product you wanted.
“We’re aiming to become the resource for scientists to go to rather than Google,” Yeung says. “Google is great for many things, but to look for specialized niche products such as what we’re focusing on it’s not very good.”

1DegreeBio was found by three people, CEO Alex Hodgson, CTO Ron Yeung and Olga Volkova, the company’s chief technical lead. Together they’ve pooled  their scientific, business and technical know-how to create a highly specific engine that translates masses of unstructured scientific data into accessible and practical information.

1DegreeBio helps researchers find antibodies. Like this one highlighted in mouse renal tubules.

Volkova is responsible for building the database architecture, and designing the layout and functionality of the Web site. From a technical standpoint, she says, maintaining the database isn’t the hard part.

“It’s more context difficulty. So, basically the area, the subject area we got ourselves into, is not very defined and structured. So, all the terms that are used in the scientific world, and all the descriptions and all structures, do not make sense in the computer science world.

“It’s more deciding what the structure should be and how it should change and why it should change at what point.”

 The company has had to change the structure of the database several times based on new data coming in from vendors. Yeung says 1DegreeBio constantly strives to identify all the “key players” in producing and distributing antibodies.

As such, a cloud-based platform fit the bill nicely. The database is hosted on Amazon Web Services. “It was pretty much impossible to create a reliable infrastructure by traditional means,” says Yeung. “Cloud computing was really a good option for it because we could simply, by the hour, order whatever computing power we required.”

“We never really looked at anything other than cloud-based servers, he adds. “It was a cheap, quick way for us to start and then, once we got going, it became for convenient for us.”

Like other successful companies, Yeung says 1DegreeBio has taken off as a startup due to its ability to listen to its clients’ needs.  “The successes come from when scientists have said ‘you know, it would really be great if we had this.’ And then you think about it and you go off and you do it. And that’s really what happened in the case of 1DegreeBio.”

Brian Bloom is a staff writer for Computerworld Canada. Connect with him on Twitter and on Google+.

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