CHICAGO– Chris van Ingen, president of Agilent’s Bio-Analytical Measurement division, delivered a presentation here this week at the annual Pittcon conference. Though a major part of the talk centered on the firm’s gas chromatography instruments, he provided an overview of the firm’s financial performance and recent product introductions for the Bio-Analytical segment. After his presentation, van Ingen spent a few minutes updating BioCommerce Week on what the firm is working on for the life sciences research and diagnostics industries. The following is an edited version of the conversation with van Ingen.
When Agilent comes to a conference like this, what does it hope to get out of it?
Fundamentally, Pittcon, like any other trade show is a great opportunity to zoom in on the target segments we go after. Pittcon is more amenable to the chemical analysis business – the environmental, food testing, forensics – not the genomics, proteomics, and pharmaceutical applications.
We’re not really finding a lot of new customers. But it’s a way to connect with the customer base, show the new technologies, the new applications and services we provide – that is simply the objective. It’s really a customer event.
At the Waters press conference this morning, they stated several times that they believe they have introduced disruptive technologies into the marketplace over the past few years. Do you think Agilent has done the same thing, or is it more a case of providing incremental and necessary improvements to products you already offer?
I think we do both. We are a leader in a number of areas. For example, in GC and GC/MS our customers are asking that any change in the instrument should enhance my productivity, but leave my methods alone. Very often when you work in a regulated environment you don’t want to change the methodology. So, technologies we introduce there should help optimize the methods rather than changing the methods completely.
If you look at what we did last year, particularly in the LC/MS space, there were some breakthrough technologies there, and also making the instrumentation available to less sophisticated users. And [in regard to] breakthrough technologies, there was the Chip-LC, which has the potential to fundamentally displace LC longer term. So, right now we are building more and more capability in the Chip-LC platform, which will eventually allow us to move all of the functionality of the standard LC onto a chip.
What would be the advantage of putting this all on a chip, other than the smaller size?
True integration of the workflow. All of the steps today are very manual, particularly in the sample prep area. If you can integrate the whole sample prep and separations workflow into one integrated chip you can enhance the sensitivity [and] improve the repeatability.
Has Agilent developed a sample prep technology for use on the chip?
Today, we do separation. We can do sample prep depending on what technique the customers use. If we build sample prep capabilities on the chip, we’ll not only cover the separation part, but we’ll also be able to capture a part of the sample prep space. So, it’s a great opportunity for us.
When you look at Agilent’s life science offerings, do you think there are any areas where you are missing a piece and where the company needs to make a move either through acquisition or internal development?
I think one of the areas we realize we truly need to enable is the microarray platform and the mass spec platform with bioreagents. That’s a key area for us as far as internal development and eventual collaborations or M&A. There are a lot of generic consumables providers, but if you look, for example, at a Q-Tof [mass spectrometer] you need bioreagents.
Let’s switch to Agilent’s diagnostics business. You’ve started with a cholesterol test. Do you intend to stay with cholesterol and/or cardiovascular tests or are there plans to branch out into other areas?
The strategy was to go after heart disease and focus on medical legacy applications. The standard cholesterol tests, we looked at what you’re truly measuring … and you need to get better separation of the HDL and LDL. We have another ten tests identified just in the cardiology space. The next area we are investigating is oncology using the [array comparative genomic hybridization] platform, and that’s moving right along. There’s also a recent announcement by the US Food and Drug Administration [about] the microarray, or multivariate tests. So, it’s pretty promising.
Agilent was not one of the company’s that recently petitioned the agency about potential regulations covering the multivariate tests, right?
We looked at what the group is trying to do and said, “Let Mother Nature and the FDA take its course.”
Are you working on diagnostic products outside of the collaboration with Caliper Life Sciences?
Yes. There’s also microarrray. The third area we are exploring is taking the Chip-LC and connect it to a smaller mass spectrometer … and move that into diagnostic applications.
Since you mentioned microarrays, are you surprised that Agilent’s microarray revenue grew 56 percent in your recent first quarter? Do you foresee a growth opportunity there?
There are areas – microRNA, splice variants, methylation – and our platform is a perfect fit for that. You wouldn’t have to develop a different procedure for any of the applications; it would be cost-prohibitive to do that.
Do you think GE’s decision to drop CodeLink presents an opportunity for Agilent?
Part of our growth already comes from that. The word was out on the street pretty quickly, and some of the GE guys called us as well. They were strong in certain geographical areas, and we capitalized on that.
Did you hire any former CodeLink employees?
We have a number of them that have joined us over the years.