Rockville's InforMax to go public


Rockville-based InforMax Inc., competing in the fledgling but fast-paced world of bioinformatics, plans to issue public shares as it expands software offerings designed to help scientists at labs big and small turn mountains of information about genes and proteins into the bases for new drugs.

The company, founded in 1990 by a Russian molecular geneticist invited to this country by DNA sleuth James D. Watson, already offers a product that allows laboratory scientists to analyze the chemical recipes of genes and proteins on desktop computers. Its more expensive offerings include GenoMax - software that allows far-flung researchers to store gene-related information gathered from disparate sources, then analyze it together over secure Internet or intranet connections.

But InforMax has grander plans for its offerings and services, according to its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and is aiming to raise $75 million with the offering on the Nasdaq stock market. The filing, made Tuesday, did not specify the number of shares to be issued or a price range.

InforMax Chief Executive Officer Alex Titomirov, who holds a doctoral degree in molecular genetics from the Russian Academy of Sciences, declined through a secretary to comment yesterday, citing Securities and Exchange Commission guidelines governing the promotion of stocks in registration.

Phillips Kuhl, president of Cambridge Healthtech Institute, a Boston-based information clearinghouse on the biotechnical and biomedical industries, described InforMax as "one of the better-established companies" in the field.

InforMax products and complementary services generated $10 million in revenue last year, according to its SEC filing. The company posted a $2.45 million loss on $3.2 million in revenue in this year's first quarter. InforMax's customer base of 1,300 includes Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck & Co. and Genzyme Corp. The company employs 172.

Bioinformatics aims to merge the worlds of molecular biology and computer science, allowing scientists searching for ways to halt disease using the body's naturally occurring substances to study the structure and behavior of genes - the body's direction-givers - and proteins, its worker bees. Bioinformatics is a broad category, encompassing gene-analyzing software companies such as Genomica Corp. - which is based in Boulder, Colo., and filed to go public in March - to DoubleTwist, a company based in Oakland, Calif., that runs a Web portal where scientists can subscribe to, mine and analyze genomic data over the Internet without having to own the software themselves.

Other companies, such as Celera Genomics Group, based in Rockville, and Incyte Genomics Inc., based in Palo Alto, Calif., were formed to provide databases of genetic information - such as the sequences of genes and proteins - to pharmaceutical customers and university-based scientists for a fee. But those companies also have developed significant bioinformatics software of their own, a necessity if their customers were going to be able to search and manipulate the information Celera and Incyte provide.

Celera recently bought Paracel Inc., a company based in Pasadena that produces hardware and software used to search and manipulate vast databases of genetic information such as the ones Celera is developing.

"There's been a pretty significant shift just within the last year or so in the bioinformatics arena, particularly as it relates to the type of strategy that DoubleTwist" is employing, Kuhl said. Such companies have decided to be Web portals, rather than selling the software directly, but "there's some real questions about how viable that is," he said.

"InforMax focuses on developing ... software sold and installed by the company directly," he said, referring to that as the more established strategy.

Craig West, an analyst for A. G. Edwards, said such bioinformatics companies will be key to helping pharmaceutical companies find drug targets in the mountains of information that are beginning to flow as Celera and the Human Genome Project finish their descriptions of the human genome.

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