RockStep Solutions Inc., which has offices in Bar Harbor and Portland, has received a $1.5 million federal grant to support its work building software to track data in biomedical research. From left are Chuck Donnelly, CEO; Carrie LeDuc, director of product development; Abigail Ames, director of technology; and Kat Taylor, director of sales and marketing. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROCKSTEP

MDI software firm lands grant

BAR HARBOR — RockStep Solutions, a software company founded by former employees of The Jackson Laboratory, recently was awarded $1.5 million over two years to further develop their software products for research laboratories.

The grant, from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH/NIGMS), will support several new full-time software engineer positions at the company’s offices, which are in Bar Harbor or Portland.

In the last 30 years, there has been remarkably little change in information systems for research, RockStep CEO Chuck Donnelly said. “About 70 percent of research labs still use spreadsheets or homegrown systems to manage their research data.

“There’s a whole host of problems with using spreadsheets, which are basically designed as financial ledgers, but people started using them for everything. They’re not designed for the highly relational data you have in the research world.”

There also can be problems with security and quality control, he said. “Who gets to see and make changes to the spreadsheets, who’s actually got the master version, and what happens when the postdoc leaves” all are familiar issues in research labs.

So Donnelly, who spent more than a decade as director of computational science at The Jackson Lab, helped build the systems researchers there use to track, analyze and communicate their data.

RockStep’s first commercial product, a data system called “Climb,” was launched in March of this year. It was developed with support from the Maine Technology Institute.

“We started completely new with Climb,” Donnelly said. “NIH did not have any interest in taking something JAX had already developed. We have the most advanced Microsoft cloud technology integrated into data system. We’ll have real-time analytics, the ability to stream data from instrumentation … . It’s really cool.”

The current NIH/NIGMS grant will support adding new functionality to Climb, Donnelly said, based on proof-of-concept work they have done.

“It’s very early on the market, but we have some high-profile clients,” he said. Research labs at the University of California in San Francisco and San Diego, the University of Texas, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Colorado all are already using Climb, he said. A number of other partner organizations are working with RockStep to test new versions. All of them are doing research with animals on disease or other biological phenomena.

“The mouse is just a test platform for studying human disease,” Donnelly said. “Our market is really academia all the way up to pharmaceutical companies.” In a few more years, he said, RockStep could be offering their software for clinical trial research.

Running a startup company is “completely different from anything I’ve ever done,” he said. “We’re in a mixed state now because we still have grants, but we’re beginning to get revenue too. We don’t expect to continue to keep getting grants as our business grows.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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