MSU Spin-off Company Markets Solution to Scientific Publishing Community and Beyond

  • George Garrity, Sc.D.
  • Professor, Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics
  • College of Natural Science
George Garrity

George Garrity strives to embody the true spirit of entrepreneurism in his work. Through his company, NamesforLife, he has developed a tool to meet a pressing need in the world of scientific research and publishing, and bundled that tool into a business venture to make it widely available. NamesforLife is a MSU spin-off company that was formed to commercialize a patented technology which has been licensed through MSU Technologies.

Garrity, once a natural product screening professional at Merck Research Laboratories, and now professor and entrepreneur, knows first-hand the problem that many scientific researchers and publishers face: that the names and classifications of organisms, chemicals and other things of interest change frequently over time, often without consistency of meaning or usage.

This problem became especially evident while Garrity served as editor-in-chief of the encyclopedic, multi-volume Bergey's Manual of Systematic Bacteriology. While collaborating on this project with Catherine Lyons, an independent publishing consultant and co-inventor and co-founder of NamesforLife, they discovered many inconsistencies and ambiguities in the biological nomenclature of prokaryotes (bacteria).

"The problem with names and nomenclature in general is that they're ambiguous," explained Garrity. "If you search on a name, you should get everything that's known about that organism. But the problem is, if you don't know all the synonyms, all the different variations of spelling, and if you don't know all the dates in which there have been revisions to the name and to the taxonomy, you have no way of getting to that information."

This ambiguity can lead to wasted time, costly errors, and even potentially dangerous situations. Garrity gives the example of a physician who may be familiar with an organism, but if the name of the organism changes, the physician may no longer be able to find current information about how to recognize it and treat a disease caused by it.

The NamesforLife services:

N4L Guide: Real time annotation of digital content. Creates connections to related resources as linked content

N4L Scribe: Embedded markup and annotation of digital content using DOIs and N4L semantic resolution

N4L Semantic Desktop: Custom tools for rapid discovery and development of topically relevant term sets for used in document classification, indexing and filtration

N4L Semiotic Fingerprinting: Vector-space method of classification and visualization based on concept-mining

Funded through a series of Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR-STTR) grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, NamesforLife (N4L) is a web-based technology that allows users to track the names and histories of biological terms through time. Using Digital Object Identifiers (DOI® character strings used to uniquely identify and track an object such as an electronic document on the Internet), N4L is able to ensure that names and terms are unique and actionable, solving the problem of ambiguity of terminology, while providing a palette of web services, such as embedded markup and real time annotation of digital content.

"When you're reading an article, if you see a name and you don't know what it is, we can provide a rich set of information to you on demand," said Garrity. "And you never have to leave the page; you never have to search for it. Our services provide a path to the correct information all the time. And you can do it on any content on the web that's properly processed."

N4L offers a suite of tools that can be fitted to various applications. "As we talk to people, we can show them what we can do with a complete nomenclature—with tools that work on the fly, with tools that embed links into publishers' content, with other kinds of advanced indexing technologies—and can build tools and services that are really robust," said Garrity. "We have a start-to-finish system; and a series of open services that allow us to build all sorts of extensions to the core N4L data model."

Expanding Into Potential Markets

Several early adopters of the tool have allowed Garrity's group to extend the research into new markets. "Each time we take on one of these projects, they are extending the underlying architecture, the platform technology, and then they allow us to add on to it and to look for increasingly broader markets," said Garrity. "The products now are sufficiently mature to take them to market and modify them quickly enough so that they meet specific needs. We've been testing and finding out what people are really interested in."

Doing research for commercialization purposes has a very different focus as compared with academic research, and, according to Garrity, requires looking at such questions as: Who do you sell to? What kind of resources do you need? When do you stop doing research and start marketing?"

"When you form the company you really need to have a balance of skill sets," said Garrity. You have to have the right kind of advisors who can tell you what kind of businesses you might be able to market into and how to get into those businesses, and how to introduce yourself."

One advisor to Garrity on N4L is Bill Kasdorf, vice president and principal consultant at Apex CoVantage, a global company specializing in business technology services and solutions, co-founded by graduates of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. In his role at Apex CoVantage, Kasdorf works in a consulting capacity with publishing clients all over the world and is enthusiastic about the marketing potential of N4L services.

"I've watched NamesforLife develop; it grew out of an actual, pressing need in science—to manage nomenclatures and taxonomies that change over time and to embed that knowledge in publications to make discovery much more effective and precise," said Kasdorf. "There's a broad benefit for the publishing industry in general for what NamesforLife is doing. It's significant for science and scholarship, but it's extremely extensible to other applications. It may have started out in relation to bacteria, but it can be used in any situation where there are lots of names that change over time, to disambiguate search results and quickly get more information about the things being named."

As a science professor at MSU, Garrity hopes students will develop a core understanding of the business side of scientific discovery. "I think that when you educate people," said Garrity, "you need to get them more in touch with people who've actually done it, and who understand not only what the problems are in terms of the technology or kind of business model, but understand that different stages of the company have different needs. It's pretty brutal. You know you get it right when you survive. If you get it right you make a lot of money; if you don't, you go broke. It's pretty straightforward."

According to Garrity, if scientists can make it in the business world it not only allows them to be personally successful, it can also have a big impact on the surrounding community, such as East Lansing. "We do a lot of business with local businesses; we pay rent; we have business services that we're paying for," said Garrity. "This is one of the things about the small businesses that spin out of the University. If they stay in the area, they generate new jobs for students, and they generate income for the community. Being here is great because we have a constant pool of talent that we can pull from. As the business grows, and if we survive another 10 years, we could have a hundred employees."

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of George Garrity, College of Natural Science

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