Tar Heel Tattler - June 2007

Maybe it will make new code medicines
- Maggie Frank

What does writing code have to do with the genetic code? Maybe nothing, but that’s not the reason Red Hat Inc. is opening an office at the state’s newest biotechnology hot spot — the $1.5 billion North Carolina Research Campus being built in Kannapolis by Dole Food owner David Murdock. The Raleigh-based software company is trying to turn its labor of love into the computer language of science.

At stake for Red Hat, which had sales of $278 million in 2006, is a bigger piece of the nation’s $100 billion-a-year software market. It sells subscriptions to its version of the Linux operating system and similar software — called “open-source” because, unlike Microsoft Windows, anyone can see the underlying code and make changes.

Red Hat, in this case, has cast itself as the bearer of open-source philosophy, bringing the joys of collaboration to nutrition researchers. Technology experts say it’s a crafty way for the company to get its head under the tent of one of the most specialized — and potentially lucrative — segments of the software industry, that dealing with the esoteric language of science.

Steven Zeisel, director of UNC Nutritional Research Institute in Chapel Hill, uses Windows but would switch to something else if it helped him compile and understand data better. “Personalized nutrition depends upon having software that lets the physician or dieticians have huge amounts of information and boil it down to simple, individualized recommendations. That software doesn’t exist yet, but I’m sure that in five years it will be changing the way that nutrition is practiced.”

Collaborating on a project with as much potential as the biotech campus has some public-relations value. But for the move to pay off, Red Hat needs to get researchers hooked on Linux and its other software before they get comfortable using something else.

Red Hat execs are loath to talk about the business-development possibilities. “It’s really about making sure they employ open-source techniques and methodology in their research,” insists Joanne Rohde, Red Hat executive vice president of operations. But if that whets researchers’ appetites for open-source software, it could end up feeding Red Hat’s bottom line.