An enterprise commercialising research in the open arena
“Open access is critical to what we do,” says William Spooner. “We’re very much locked into the open arena.” Spooner is the founder and chief technical officer of Eagle Genomics, a small British company offering bioinformatics services and software and specialising in genome content management across the life sciences.
“Open access allows us to do what we need to do. We are in the business of translational research so we take research from academia and we put that into an industrial context. Without free and easy access to the publications, it would be very, very difficult for us to continue our business,” he explains.
Set up in 2008, Eagle Genomics acts as an intermediary between the people generating data – the scientists tracking the human genome and depositing their findings in open access databases – and the industrial end user of the data, primarily pharmaceutical companies. Eagle provides the translational component that drives the economic impact that derives from the data being in the public domain, which has been estimated at as much as $796bn.
“We decided to found Eagle to see if we could apply commercial open source principles to genomics, specifically providing services to support the use of open access and open source in industry. We knew that there was demand for such services, and were able to start Eagle without the need for external investment. Since that time we have grown the business at 50% a year while remaining profitable,” says Spooner.
When working on projects for clients, Eagle uses open source software wherever possible. For Spooner, open source, open data and open access all go hand-in-hand in the open science arena.
“Could we do what we do now without open data and open source? No, we could not, it’s the core of the business. Could we do it without open access journals? I would suggest that we couldn’t. We couldn’t get the information we need at the price that we need,” he says. “There’s so much information on the web these days, it’s so easy to find and there is so much competition for it that if there is an obstacle in your way like having to get out your credit card, even having to sign in, you just move on. When I hit a paywall and move on, that research will not get used in our work.”
Encountering subscriber content and moving on is Eagle’s loss, it’s the scientists’ loss and, arguably, it’s the wider economy’s loss. Would the human genome project have generated the billion dollar economic impact that it has “if you had to pay $50 to look at every single paper that had been published on the subject?” asks Spooner. He firmly believes that it would not, and points to the value provided from translational research undertaken by companies such as Eagle.
“We are not just a leech, we are not just taking stuff that’s free from elsewhere and using it to our own ends. There is value that flows both ways – it’s valuable for the customers and it’s also valuable for the academic collaborators. That is enhanced by the culture of openness and the use of open source and open data and open access.”
Eagle can claim to follow its own rules by publishing its own papers as open access and releasing all its work under open source licences. Again, it finds that the benefits of openness are manifold. The company collaborates with the University of Manchester over a piece of software, Taverna, used for running scientific workflows. It is part of a project to investigate how cloud computing could be used to process genomic workflows for clinical applications for the NHS. Eagle finds that the culture of openness makes it easier to collaborate.
“Purely looking at the legal framework that you need to put in place to enable a collaboration, it all becomes much, much simpler because everything becomes shared. Open data, open access speeds translational research, it speeds up moving information, moving knowledge, moving insight from academia into industry. There’s no doubt about that at all,” says Spooner.