MDL, Symyx and What Will Happen with E-notebooks Now?

16 Aug

By now the majority of people reading this blog will be aware of Symyx and MDL getting together as a result of the Elsevier sell off. I’d predicted this a couple of months ago as the rumor mill suggested that an “MDL package” was being dropped on the desktops of companies interested in the technology. This comes at a time when the cheminformatics space continues to go through some struggles and challenges as well as, in many ways, shrinkage. In the past few months Tripos sold off its informatics business and Klee was acquired by Agilent continuing a shrinkage of some of the larger players in the E-notebook market.

The acquisition of MDL by Symyx means that it is the third E-notebook technology Symyx has brought in house over the past couple of years having acquired Intellichem (covering the development space) and Synthematix (covering the Discovery space). These technologies were meshed with the Renaissance Suite last I heard …a platform with a significant investment based on a couple of 5 year deals with Dow and ExxonMobil.

Symyx has continued to grow its informatics presence and the acquisition of MDL is no real surprise once they were up for sale. Few companies had the warchest of cash to acquire them and Symyx senior management has a long history with MDL – Steve Goldby was CEO of MDL for about a decade and Dave Dorsett, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Symyx Software Division was at MDL for 13 years.

This means that Symyx has discovery and development covered (both Synthematix and Intellichem had great tools when Symyx acquired them) and adding MDL to the fold means that the Isentris Framework could become the foundation for meshing in the capabilities with Symyx’s renamed tools from the Renaissance Suite for analytical data handling (polyview, spectra studio, and Data Browser.

Done right the coupling and integration of the array of tools now in Symyx’s hands could change the face of data management in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. That said these are different tools developed on different development platforms within different company cultures so there may be some challenges. Time will tell..

A few years ago MDL had a bit of a negative reputation in the industry but I believe this has been cleaned up a lot over the past few years based on my discussions with a number of their customers. I’ve had the privilege of seeing the Isentris platform and working with a number of people at MDL in the past couple of years and they were a good team to work with.

Symyx are poised to take hold of the Enterprise Level E-notebook business because of the “chemical structure” strength of their offering and the connection to analytical data handling and management. I’ve spoken for years about the three “S’s” – Samples, Structures and Spectra. The first company bringing sample, structure and spectral (analytical data) management together should have an industry winning offering (assuming it;s delivered correctly of course!)

This is despite the fact that Agilent are now in the E-notebook world with the Klee acquisition (and associated Notebook product), and Thermo and Microsoft had announced some collaboration around an electronic notebook too (but I can’t find a link for it). I recall that Klee and MDL had a collaboration and it is quite possible that many of the other vendors for Enterprise Informatics systems might become hyper-dependent on the Isentris platform for structure and reaction management. Symyx cannot lose if Thermo, Waters and Agilent need to work with them to deliver the integration to the enterprise level structure handling. But wouldn’t customers want to go with one vendor for structures and notebook and….?

One of the most discussed e-notebook systems is that delivered by Cambridgesoft and they now have multiple flavors of their e-notebook. They have done well in terms of penetrating large, medium and small pharma but likely with the greatest successes at the desktops of Discovery Chemists. With Symyx having solutions stretching from discovery to development, and with analytical data support and enormous strength in structure and reaction handling, Cambridgesoft may be hard-pressed to retain the business in the largest companies as IT is wowed by the Enterprise architectures of Symyx. Cambridgesoft commonly hold the desktops with ChemDraw and is still the preferred tool for the chemists in many cases (ask the chemists!). Meanwhile, Isis Draw from MDL historically had great corporate traction and their recent delivery of MDL Draw is grabbing market share back at present.

I’ll go public with another prediction…since I didn’t go public with the last one about MDL (if I could only pick stocks and mutual funds so well). That is that the larger organizations with informatics teams (read that as Agilent and Thermo) desperately need skills in structure drawing and databasing if they are to compete with Symyx. Both Agilent and Thermo have LIMS domain expertise, analytical data processing and data systems, archiving etc. Waters, one of the other informatics and analytical chemistry vendors, also has similar domain expertise but they acquired a few years ago Creon Labcontrol to add to their structure handing capabilities. I judge that Cambridgesoft will be the next small company to be swallowed up by one of the larger players to deliver structure drawing and databasing. They will come with great branding and a favored desktop reputation with Discovery Scientists.

There is a lot more to say about this domain and how it might shift now…but it’s enough to start here….let’s keep watching.


About tony

Antony (Tony) J. Williams received his BSc in 1985 from the University of Liverpool (UK) and PhD in 1988 from the University of London (UK). His PhD research interests were in studying the effects of high pressure on molecular motions within lubricant related systems using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. He moved to Ottawa, Canada to work for the National Research Council performing fundamental research on the electron paramagnetic resonance of radicals trapped in single crystals. Following his postdoctoral position he became the NMR Facility Manager for Ottawa University. Tony joined the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York as their NMR Technology Leader. He led the laboratory to develop quality control across multiple spectroscopy labs and helped establish walk-up laboratories providing NMR, LC-MS and other forms of spectroscopy to hundreds of chemists across multiple sites. This included the delivery of spectroscopic data to the desktop, automated processing and his initial interests in computer-assisted structure elucidation (CASE) systems. He also worked with a team to develop the worlds’ first web-based LIMS system, WIMS, capable of allowing chemical structure searching and spectral display. With his developing cheminformatic skills and passion for data management he left corporate America to join a small start-up company working out of Toronto, Canada. He joined ACD/Labs as their NMR Product Manager and various roles, including Chief Science Officer, during his 10 years with the company. His responsibilities included managing over 50 products at one time prior to developing a product management team, managing sales, marketing, technical support and technical services. ACD/Labs was one of Canada’s Fast 50 Tech Companies, and Forbes Fast 500 companies in 2001. His primary passions during his tenure with ACD/Labs was the continued adoption of web-based technologies and developing automated structure verification and elucidation platforms. While at ACD/Labs he suggested the possibility of developing a public resource for chemists attempting to integrate internet available chemical data. He finally pursued this vision with some close friends as a hobby project in the evenings and the result was the ChemSpider database ( Even while running out of a basement on hand built servers the website developed a large community following that eventually culminated in the acquisition of the website by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) based in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Tony joined the organization, together with some of the other ChemSpider team, and became their Vice President of Strategic Development. At RSC he continued to develop cheminformatics tools, specifically ChemSpider, and was the technical lead for the chemistry aspects of the Open PHACTS project (, a project focused on the delivery of open data, open source and open systems to support the pharmaceutical sciences. He was also the technical lead for the UK National Chemical Database Service ( and the RSC lead for the PharmaSea project ( attempting to identify novel natural products from the ocean. He left RSC in 2015 to become a Computational Chemist in the National Center of Computational Toxicology at the Environmental Protection Agency where he is bringing his skills to bear working with a team on the delivery of a new software architecture for the management and delivery of data, algorithms and visualization tools. The “Chemistry Dashboard” was released on April 1st, no fooling, at, and provides access to over 700,000 chemicals, experimental and predicted properties and a developing link network to support the environmental sciences. Tony remains passionate about computer-assisted structure elucidation and verification approaches and continues to publish in this area. He is also passionate about teaching scientists to benefit from the developing array of social networking tools for scientists and is known as the ChemConnector on the networks. Over the years he has had adjunct roles at a number of institutions and presently enjoys working with scientists at both UNC Chapel Hill and NC State University. He is widely published with over 200 papers and book chapters and was the recipient of the Jim Gray Award for eScience in 2012. In 2016 he was awarded the North Carolina ACS Distinguished Speaker Award.
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Posted by on August 16, 2007 in Uncategorized


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