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To Be a Tools Company, Or Not? Ciphergen Asks the Question

SAN FRANCISCO, May 9 - William Rich, CEO of Ciphergen, wants to use his company's proteomic tools to build something much bigger.


"Everybody wants to forward integrate, it's higher value than just selling tools," Rich recently told a GenomeWeb reporter at the company's Fremont, Calif.headquarters on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. "Every tools company is trying to figure out how to do that, from Affymetrix to Zyomyx."


And, of course, Ciphergen.


For the protein chip company, bigger means eventually moving into diagnostics, said Rich, but to get there he said the company must prove it has built not just a better mouse trap, but one that will do something that isn't yet possible.


"If there were only 30,000 proteins, we could all be optimistic [about developing better diagnostics]," said Rich. "But there's hundreds of thousands of proteins, and only 30,000 genes. How will I get the other 970,000 proteins that I don't know about? Once you exhaust the genomics approach to proteomics, you still have to study the rest. We need better tools."


Rich compares the quest for better proteomics tools - not just more productive, he says, but enabling a breakthrough approach to a research problem - to the development of PCR, a technology which lead to a revolution in genomics.


"There is no PCR with proteins, we're still trying to purify," said Rich. "Fractionating is the only way you can get enough proteins to study, outside of making them from 30,000 gene constructs."


Ciphergen is betting that its protein chips can speed up the process fast enough to leave other purifying methods such as 2-D gels and chromatography in the dust, while making its tools accessible to big pharma as well as bench-top biologists. The company's chips will bring proteins to the people, said Rich, by allowing proteins to be separated, detected, and analyzed quickly, and in one place instead of being sent to a core facility for mass spectrometry analysis.


"We're trying to be like Microsoft, to be the operating system to be used for all protein analysis" via a PC-like approach rather than mainframe models around core labs, said Rich.


Comparing one's technology to PCR and Microsoft is, of course, aiming high. But Rich believes the protein chips will prove themselves over the next several months in trials set up with institutions such as Johns Hopkins which are using the chips to hunt for protein biomarkers associated with early detection of disease. Ciphergen retains the rights to develop diagnostics, and in some cases therapeutics, based on the results of those studies, said Rich.


"We will see papers pouring out [soon]," said Rich. "Everything will happen this year, or not.  We'll prove our technology is enabling, and we will forward integrate to therapeutics. If not," he added, the business model "collapses, and we're a tools company. "


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