No one familiar with the current approach to drug discovery, which depends on sifting through genomic data to identify both therapeutics and targets, would dispute the need for powerful and elegant bioinformatics software to make such research possible. But it may be difficult for even the most technologically informed researcher to distinguish among the variety of bioinformatics products that have become available. And while an easy-to-use graphical interface may be essential, whether one piece of software is better than another depends on what's under the hood of the car.

For bioinformatics companies building an independent business, the challenge is to convince pharma and biotech customers that their software products not only perform as advertised and actually improve drug discovery, but also that the products are so much better than programs written internally or publicly available that they are worth paying for.

Bioinformatics companies promote their products using a range of claims about functionality. Conversely, biotech and pharma companies use their own criteria to evaluate the software. Thus carving out a niche in the bioinformatics space, a market variously estimated to be between $50 million and $900 million this year, requires matching product features to customer needs.

Demonstrating ability

Just as a new therapeutic must meet bioavailability, specificity, safety and efficacy criteria to be approved by regulatory agencies, bioinformatics software must meet a range of criteria to be approved by the end user. Those criteria fall into two groups: general product specifications, much like any software or other enabling technology product, and the scientific outcome of using the software, e.g. whether it accurately reflects biological experimentation.