Public Release: 

A new support forum for small-to-medium enterprises

On October 13, 2003 the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) will launch a new bioinformatics support network that is tailor-made for small companies.

European Molecular Biology Laboratory

It can be a lonely business being a bioinformatician in a small company. It is widely acknowledged that Europe's economic development is becoming increasingly dependent on small-to-medium enterprises, or SMEs (enterprises with fewer than 250 employees and an annual turnover not exceeding 50 million Euros or an annual balance-sheet total not exceeding 43 million Euros). But these lean, mean companies lack many of the support networks that are taken for granted by larger companies. For example, practically every small biotechnology company relies on bioinformatics - the science of storing, retrieving and analysing large amounts of biological information - for its research, and effective bioinformatics tools are often a key part of business strategy. Yet many SMEs have only a single member of staff responsible for this important aspect of their business, and these key people often have to multitask. Staff in this situation have nowhere to turn within their company if they need to solve a bioinformatics-related problem.

The situation is set to change for the better in October, when the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), Europe's premier provider of bioinformatics services, will launch a unique support forum designed especially for SMEs. The forum has been developed in response to demand from small companies for bioinformatics support, and has been designed in consultation with them.

When it launches in October, the forum will offer a biannual networking meeting, hands-on training, access to technical expertise, and consultancy.

The meetings will allow staff from SMEs to network openly with like-minded people from other companies and with EBI staff, providing bioinformaticians from SMEs with a ready-made community. "The intention is to create an open forum for members to contribute ideas and discuss issues directly with the most appropriate staff within the EBI," explains Paul Matthews, the EBI's Industry Programme Coordinator. "Our biannual meetings will provide an opportunity to raise issues that are of most importance to the focus and strategy of member companies."

When asked what they would like to see included in a support forum, nearly every SME employee requested a training programme. Educational workshops will therefore form a core part of the forum. "The EBI has over eight years experience of providing high-quality workshops to industry," explains Paul Matthews. "We have run over 50 workshops since 1996, aimed at a range of target audiences, from bench scientists to expert bioinformatics analysts and programmers." As of October, places will be earmarked for members of the SME support forum in the existing workshop programme, and members of the forum will be able to dip into the workshops on a 'pay-as-you-go' basis.

The forum will also provide opportunities for technical development through collaboration with the EBI, as well as expert technical help on an ad hoc basis. Other benefits of membership, including a new series of workshops tailored to the needs of SMEs and a dedicated helpdesk, are planned for the future - funding permitting.

Why is the EBI ideally placed to provide this support? "As a supplier of bioinformatics services to many businesses in the biomedical arena, the EBI understands how important it is to small companies that our resources mesh seamlessly with their bioinformatics solutions every time," says Paul Matthews. "Expanding our efforts to include SMEs, which are so important to Europe's future, is a natural progression and a part of the EBI's mandate," adds Graham Cameron, the EBI's Associate Director.

An annual subscription to the SME Support Forum costs 1000 Euros. Companies wishing to join should contact Paul Matthews or visit the SME Support Forum Website at www.ebi.ac.uk/industry/SME.

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