Analyze This

A Boca Raton tech company seeks an antidote for anthrax and dotcom failure

No one sits at the reception desk in Suite 325 of the Mizner Office Complex in Boca Raton. The waiting area for Sengent, whose company logo of eight cubes creates a three-dimensional grid, has become something of a game room where stressed-out computer programmers can unwind and walk away for a moment from the ceaseless glow of monitors.

That's because, instead of a secretary waiting in the reception area, a dartboard hangs invitingly. Dozens of tiny holes ring the board, suggesting that too much time in front of a computer might be bad for aim or worse for eyesight.

Company President Gioel Molinari, a tall thin man with thick brown hair and sideburns, smiles as he runs his hand over the pockmarks in the wall. "If only everyone here weren't blind," he says jokingly. Dressed in jeans and a white button-up shirt with the Sengent logo on it, Molinari talks with a slow deliberate eloquence, as if he rehearses the lines in his head right before speaking. The Fort Lauderdale resident is a self-taught computer programmer with the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that thrived when websites that sold dog food traded on NASDAQ.

Gioel Molinari sells software by the seashore
Colby Katz
Gioel Molinari sells software by the seashore

He wears designer eyeglasses and a week's growth of facial hair, pulling off that New Economy-changes-everything shtick so perfectly, you'd expect him to have been a Business 2.0 cover boy in the late '90. But he was a bit too young back then.

Now at the tender age of 28, Molinari has successfully launched a South Florida tech company during an economic drought that turned dot-com into profanity. Earlier this year, he raised $425,000 from four accredited investors in a seemingly dry market.

That, however, is the dull part of Molinari's story. This is a guy, after all, who helped to develop software that may one day identify an antidote for anthrax, smallpox, Ebola, and SARS.

A Carnegie Mellon University graduate with a degree in chemical engineering, Molinari came to South Florida in March 1999 to take a computer programming job at Xcelerate, a Fort Lauderdale company that provides e-business consulting. As the bottom fell out of the Internet economy, Xcelerate and other tech companies languished.

But Molinari saw opportunity. He and his fellow coworkers had an interest in working with one of the computer industry's emerging technologies, distributed computing, also known as grid computing. The technology allows huge computational problems to be divided among hundreds or thousands of computers. This network of machines, known as a grid, can provide the computational power of a supercomputer.

While grids have for years been used by academics as a way to increase power without escalating costs, the technology has only just begun to find its way into commercial markets. That's where Molinari's Sengent -- whose name comes from combining sentient agent -- comes into play.

After individual stock traders lost fortunes on Wall Street, thanks to biased brokerage advice and willy-nilly trading, Molinari saw a future for grid computing in the investment industry. Risk analysis and investment forecasting, both of which require intense levels of computation, can take a single computer hours, even days, to calculate. Spanning that workload over a network of machines would decrease calculation times, Molinari speculated, giving investment banks and hedge funds an edge over the competition.

But Sengent needed startup capital. Yeah, you've read this story before, the one about the group of guys, all under 40, out to grab their piece of the Internet fortune. Where this tale of high-tech enterprise takes a twist is where Molinari received a call from his uncle, Jonathan Rothberg, president of a genomics research company and founder of the Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases. The nonprofit institute in Guilford, Connecticut, researches possible cures for Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, or TSC, a genetic disorder affecting children that leads to benign tumors in the eyes, brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and other organs.

Rothberg wanted to find a way for his institute to perform computerized drug screening without having to invest millions of dollars in hardware. His nephew had a solution: a volunteer grid. In exchange for startup capital, Molinari agreed to a challenge from his uncle. His company would create a drug-screening process to identify antidotes for potential weaponized diseases, including anthrax, smallpox, and Ebola.

Computerized drug screening, a maturing technology that identifies chemical compounds for future lab testing, is an ideal project for grid computing because it requires vast amounts of computation. A library of 100,000 chemical compounds can be narrowed down to as few as 12,000 possible candidates for drug testing. "Basically, we play video games," explains Bonnie Gould Rothberg, the institute's medical director and Rothberg's wife. "We simulate to see whether any of these drug molecules can fit like a key into a lock. What we're trying to do is get the computer to simulate chemical interactions."

In October 2001, Jonathan Rothberg gave Sengent 30 days to develop the software. Molinari and his ten employees worked day and night. "It was madness," Molinari remembers. The project became known as Drug Design and Optimization Lab, or D2OL, and employs software architecture originally intended to crunch financial data. It launched on November 15, 2001.

What makes D2OL different from Sengent's financial software is volunteerism. Unlike large corporations with networks of computers on hand to crunch data, the nonprofit project must rely on the computer power of average Internet users. A PC owner interested in participating downloads a small program that runs computations when his computer is idle, dedicating otherwise wasted resources to the project. The program runs computations, for example, when the screen saver is activated, making it unlikely that the user would realize D2OL is running in the background. When the program finishes its computations, it automatically uploads the results and receives a new assignment.

It then becomes possible for a home PC to identify testing candidates -- and possible antidotes for -- anthrax, smallpox, Ebola, and SARS. In fact, on the project website (www.d2ol.com), users can track how many candidates their computers have identified. The Rothberg Institute subsequently tests those candidates and also makes D2OL's results available to the larger scientific community. "They crank out several hundred thousands of candidate tests per week," Molinari says. "That is then pro-actively looked at, evaluated, and tested in a lab in collaboration with advisers at Yale, Harvard, and other medical schools around the country."

D2OL currently has 50,000 volunteers in 84 countries, but the project is not unique. Other grids employ volunteer computers to identify possible cures for AIDS and cancer. The most popular is the Search for Extraterrestrial Life's SETI@home, run by the University of California at Berkeley. More than 4 million people in 236 countries volunteer processing power to analyze radio waves from deep space.

Although the SETI project has yet to discover alien civilizations, D2OL has made important findings. In April, the project identified an essential protein in the SARS virus. Four weeks later, German scientists published the same findings from an independent study in the journal Science.

D2OL has also recognized more than 12 million candidates for lab testing. "If we did this on one computer, it would take eons," Gould Rothberg explains. "By the time we'd have candidates identified, we'd be old and gray."

However, since Sengent is a for-profit corporation, early reports in the technology press questioned whether the Boca Raton company's motives were less than altruistic. Creating software to fight bioterrorism is quite a marketing angle.

"I'm a bit dubious about Sengent's motives for a few reasons," one D2OL participant told Wired News last year. "They have appeared from nowhere at a time when bioterrorism is a big news media story, and I think they're exploiting that."

But that seems unlikely today. If the project were a marketing gimmick -- and, indeed, it would be a clever one -- surely it's been too expensive and more time-consuming than such an effort would have been worth.

And whatever marketing benefits the project might offer, it has yet to influence Sengent's bottom line. Although in March the company released the final edition of its financial grid software, called ClariFI, Sengent hasn't yet reached profitability. That might explain why Molinari scoffs at the notion that his nonprofit drug-testing project is a publicity gimmick.

He looks out his conference-room window and points across Mizner Boulevard. Here's where, in September 2001, a letter addressed to Jennifer Lopez introduced the United States to bioterrorism. "They evacuated that post office," Molinari remembers, shaking his head in disbelief. "We were all scared. We didn't know what to do or where to go. We were shaking at our desks."

And so maybe, with Sengent's help, more than 50,000 volunteer computers can work together to identify an antidote for the anthrax that plagued Boca Raton. Wouldn't that be one hell of a publicity stunt?

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