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Agilent Looks to Conquer Waters with Launch of New High-Speed Liquid Chromatography System ...

Taking a step in its publicly stated goal of surpassing Waters as the top liquid chromatography vendor on the market, Agilent has launched its 1200 Series LC system, a high-resolution, high-speed system to compete with Waters' Acquity UPLC.

According to Agilent, the liquid chromatography market, which has applications in pharmaceutical and protein research, forensics, and food safety, is worth roughly $2 billion. In addition to Waters, the firm competes with other BCW Index companies, including PerkinElmer, Thermo Electron, and Applied Biosystems, in the LC space.

It has been nearly a year and a half since Waters launched the Acquity, and since that time it has enjoyed the first-mover advantage in offering a high-speed LC system. But Agilent believes that the flexibility and high resolution of its new system, the successor to its 11-year-old 1100 Series liquid chromatography instrument, will enable it to take market share from Waters, as well as other LC vendors that have yet to launch a high-speed instrument.

"We perceive it as something that can compete with the Acquity, but it's better," said Christina Maehr, launch coordinator for the 1200 Series LC. "The Agilent 1200 provides every type of chromatography you want to do. We can do the prep scale, we can do nano, we can do standard, we can do capillary, and we can do high-speed, all on the same platform. That's a huge advantage," she said.

"We've gotten better performance than the Acuity system at a lower pressure … and yet we're getting 60 percent better resolution and two to three times faster" performance than conventional LC instruments.

Maehr declined to provide pricing information for the 1200 system, but said it was comparable in price to the predecessor 1100 system. She noted, though, that there is a premium for the rapid resolution module that customers can choose as part of the system.

Maehr said Agilent's ability to offer customers the option of upgrading their 1100 instruments piecemeal could also prove to be an advantage. "Any methods that people developed on the 1100, they will be able to run on the 1200 without having to redo or revalidate the method. So, that saves customers a lot of time," she said.

"One thing that we heard a lot from customers is that they were very put out by the fact that they had the Waters Alliance system, and if they wanted the high-speed system, they had to buy an entirely different system," Maehr said. "And there's no upgrade path between the two and there's no migration path between the two. We've solved that problem."

But Waters does provide a bridge between the Alliance and the Acquity methodologies, according to Gene Cassis, Waters' vice president of investor relations. "Fundamentally, with Acquity UPLC the key technology is the chemistry. We've created an HPLC column that has the same surface chemistry as our Acquity columns, so that people can use the Alliance system to see how from a chemistry of separations point of view how Acuity might look."

Agilent claims the new system is the world's fastest and most comprehensive liquid chromatography system on the market. It has more than 60 instrument modules, including its new rapid resolution system, which the firm claims is up to 20 times faster and provides 60 percent higher resolution than conventional liquid chromatography.

According to Maehr, Agilent received feedback during the development of the 1200 system that suggested customers were concerned about the potential for instrument failure from ultra high pressure — the key to faster performance and higher resolution in the Waters system.

"We've gotten better performance than the Acuity system at a lower pressure … and yet we're getting 60 percent better resolution and two to three times faster" performance than conventional LC instruments, said Maehr. "Ultimately what customers want is speed and resolution. Waters has been pushing pressure because that's one of the ways you can get speed and resolution, but it's not the only way, and it's a way that has a downside because the higher pressure you operate at the more likely you are to cause instrument failure," she said.

That claim was disputed by Waters' Cassis. "We designed this system for the higher pressure. Typically, people are running it two or three times the pressure limits of HPLC, and that may sound like a lot, but it's not orders of magnitude more pressure."

Pharma Spending and Consumable Sales

Waters and Agilent are heading into the 2006 pharma spending market with two distinct expectations. Though sales of Waters' Acquity UPLC system has improved over the past year, the firm did not sell enough of them to help the company meet quarterly revenue projections twice last year, causing the firm to issue warnings in advance of its financial releases. Waters does not provide sales figures for product lines, but President and CEO Doug Berthiaume said during a conference call this week that sales of Acquity "more than doubled in the quarter in terms of underlying growth rate and order rate." (see article in this week's issue)

Speaking recently at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, Berthiaume said, "We think we've seen a bottoming out of the difficulties with large pharma." However, he said he does not believe large pharma "will open up the checkbook" in the first quarter (see BioCommerce Week 1/11/2006).

Waters is betting that sales of the Acquity instrument will pick up later in 2006. "There's a huge installed base that we have the opportunity to convert from HPLC to UPLC, and whether that's Waters' installed base or competitors' installed base, it will be many years before you would see a lack of opportunity [in] moving new gear into the marketplace," Berthiaume said.

Agilent, on the other hand, is unfazed by the difficulties that Waters and some other capital equipment vendors have had with big pharma accounts over the past year or two, and doesn't believe it will encounter problems selling the new LC system in that market. "I don't think we have any worries," said Maehr.

She said the firm is seeing growth in each of the areas in which it sells LC instruments. "Ultimately, because of the flexibility of our system we can sell into just about any market any application," said Maehr. "That gives us a lot of stability or insurance against market fluctuations."

Another way for capital equipment providers to protect against market fluctuations is to focus on the sale of consumables that accompany equipment. This strategy has been adopted by several of the BCW Index firms, most notably ABI, which last year formed a separate business unit within its molecular biology division to focus on consumables.

Waters hopes to grow its consumables business by offering only proprietary chemistries for use with its Acquity UPLC system, which Berthiaume acknowledged is a potentially risky strategy because LC users are accustomed to being able to choose their own chemistries.

But Agilent also has some proprietary chemistry on its LC columns, said Maehr, though she couldn't say how much of its liquid chromatography consumable offerings are proprietary.

"Overall in LC, we sell over 900 columns, [and] we're one of the largest column suppliers," Maehr said. The introduction of the 1200 series instrument was accompanied by 70 new columns that go specifically with the rapid-resolution system, she said.

Maehr noted that sales of Agilent's chromatography supplies have grown at a double-digit rate annually over the last few years, she could not disclose overall sales for liquid chromatography products or their percentage of total life sciences sales for the company. The firm noted in a press release that its LC products are "one of the largest sources of revenue" for its Life Sciences and Chemical Analysis business.

— Edward Winnick ([email protected])

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