Beckman Coulter’s Bruce Wallace is one of the few executives in the molecular biology tools industry whose job responsibilities and job title specifically address the emerging systems-biology market.
Wallace, 54, is vice president and director of Beckman’s systems biology business center, a post he has held for one year after joining the Fullerton, Calif., company three years ago from Nanogen, where he was vice president for research and development.
BioCommerce Week spoke with Wallace last week about the systems biology market and how he and Beckman Coulter approach this evolving space.
Your job title is unique in the industry. Do you know of anyone else with a similar title and responsibility?
No, not really. I originally came to Beckman Coulter and was working on molecular diagnostics. That strategy got set in place and I moved on to manage this business. My mission is to look out for our shareholders and increase value. We see systems biology as one way to do that.
Beckman Coulter is a unique company and really the only company in this space that serves what we call the biomedical-testing continuum. All we do is biomedical testing. We begin at the research end of the scale and end at in vitro diagnostics. We are not a pharma and we are not a therapeutics company. Since we only focus on one broad area, we have the luxury of being able to migrate our technologies from research through into early-stage diagnostics and then on into diagnostics. So, that being the context of the company, systems biology serves us well because we have two big customer bases — academic, government research, and big pharma and biopharma. Those two customer bases have really turned their attention largely to systems biology approaches recently and we have adapted our strategy to serve that customer base.
How does the systems biology business unit fit into the company?
System biology is one of the business centers within our biomedical research division. We are a company has two major divisions — biomedical research, which services the basic research through translational medicine area, especially testing. And we have our clinical diagnostics. A business center in our definition is a vertical business unit that focuses on the strategic side of the business. The division represents about 30 percent of Beckman Coulter, and probably about 30 percent of the employees.
Systems biology is a somewhat ill-defined concept today. What are your customers seeking?
Systems biology, in my opinion at least, is not a discipline, it’s almost a philosophy. The two major initiatives that are really driving it are genomics and proteomics. With the completion of the sequencing of the human genome, it has be come clear that we are at a loss to explain how 25,000 genes can control the human being. And, there is the realization that these 25,000 genes may [code for] as many as 1 million proteins. The proteome is complex. So, systems biology is a way to explain how the system works. It has gotten to the point where the researcher in pharma understands that it isn’t one gene and one disease. Therefore, systems biology approaches become very, very, very critical. Superimposed on all of that is the problem that pharma faces, and that is that just understanding the mechanism of disease itself is not enough. You have to understand all of the complex interactions that go on and cause side reactions. So in addition to all of the pathways, one needs to understand other pathways such as drug metabolism. People might not call it systems biology but it has evolved into a situation where people are trying to understand very complex systems to solve the problems du jour.
What Beckman Coulter product lines speak to systems biology?
In the past, it has been just a list of product offerings. We are turning our attention to a strategic approach and that is: What makes sense to a customer? We have a very broad product offering. In proteomics, we have two flagship products. One is PF2D, a two-dimensional HPLC device that allows you to really fractionate the proteome into fractions amenable to subsequent analysis. That is a very key piece of proteomics strategy because the proteome has two facts that create technical barriers. One is its huge dynamic range, probably on the order of 1011 in dynamic range, which creates analytical issues. And, the other problem is the million proteins that make up the proteome. So it is complex and it has a huge dynamic range. The strategy is what we call divide and conquer — you fractionate the proteome.
We have another product based on capillary electrophoresis called the P800. We also offer many other ancillary products in our portfolio that make proteomics happen. For example, even though it seems mundane, centrifugation is a key issue. If you want to study mitochondria, you use centrifugation as the central starting point. We have always served that marketplace, but now we are speaking to the proteomics people directly through centrifugation, which allows you to do isolation and also allows you to do protein-protein interaction.
Another attribute of the complexity of the proteome is that it is amenable to automation and our products speak to that specifically and directly. We believe that we are a company that automates solutions for the customer and proteomics is one of those.
In genomics, we have two flagship products. One is our genetic-analysis system; called the Genomelab CEQ880, a capillary electrophoresis-based genetic-analysis platform that automates the electrophoresis process. It does DNA sequencing and fragment analysis and we are continually improving the applications that go on the platform. One of the keys is that it automates many of the steps that customers might want to do. Our other flagship product is our SNP Stream, which is based on technology acquired from Orchid. It’s an array platform that allows you to do high-throughput SNP genotyping. We see SNP-typing as part of the systems-biology strategy, and we see genetic analysis in general as part of the systems-biology strategy.
We have several products in cellular analysis that span the spectrum. We have the affordable cytometer all the way through the cell sorter. Cell sorting is clearly a strategy that is important to proteomics, and genetic analysis, and systems biology in general. We have the FC 500, a five-color cytometer that we have also provided with micro-plate automation. The FC 500 comes in several flavors, if you will, and we have taken that cytometer to clinical diagnostics for cellular-analysis-based diagnostics. Most recently, we have introduced an affordable line of cytometers, the Quanta line. So, we cover that whole spectrum.
In addition, we have products such as the Vi-cell, a cell-viability analyzer that counts and images cells, and measures the viability of industrial processes that are involved with the production of cells. And, it can be used for analyzing particles outside of cells. The other piece of technology, the flagship product that we have introduced recently, is another array-based system, called A2, an array of arrays that provides the ability to multiplex immunoassay assays, bridging the gap between proteomics where you discover biomarkers, and the cellular analysis area where many of the biomarkers have known functionality. The tool allows you to do up to 13 simultaneous immunoassays in an array format.
That’s why it is hard to look at a product list and say, ‘Oh you are a proteomics company’, or ‘You are a systems biology company.’ We believe that these are all integrated and we build our strategy around this integration. Our fundamental strategy we call from tools to solutions. We are really strategically focusing on providing solutions for the customers.
Who sells the products?
We have three sales organizations that geographically serve North America, Europe, and Asia. The business center is ultimately responsible for everything including sales. We work with the sales organizations to impart the message, provide the tools, and explain the connections. I go out and talk to sales management and the sales force in general and we ‘sell’ our message to them. We provide resources where necessary to work with the customers, so we have this extensive sales and services organization. That is the way it works, it’s a matter of aligning your sales tactical activities with your strategic vision and making that happen. One of the virtues of the business center is that we get to leverage the entire sales organization around the world. They just don’t report to me.
Are you marketing this systems-biology strategy?
We have spent a lot of time thinking about the value of that. We have put together a few pieces that we are currently working on. Right now, we are trying to understand whether a systems-biology message is leverageable against sales. We actively go out and talk. And whenever I’m speaking to customers and groups, I talk about the systems-biology message. But whether we go into print with that, we haven’t made that decision yet. It’s like the ‘omic revolution, everything became ‘omic and then it just became rhetoric and potentially not relevant to the consumer. We are here to sell products to our customer base, and provide solutions for them and improve our revenues. What Lee Hood says about systems biology is more futuristic. As a company, it is great to be futuristic, but we also need to be pragmatic about what we can do for you today.
Some define systems biology as really scaling up today’s processes. Are your products ready for orders-of-magnitude growth in scale?
One of the areas where scale is becoming an issue is in proteomics where dynamic range is an issue and you either need to go to a larger scale or to more sensitive technologies. Our sweet spot is not in the massively large, nor in the nanotechnology area. We tend to address the area in between. One of the things you have to be careful of is that you don’t want to be serving a very rarified marketplace. That is not commercially viable.
What do you see as compelling commercial opportunities in the systems world over the next three to five years, and is that timeframe the limit of your corporate vision?
I think you rarely look too much beyond five years. You can look out further but you are almost certain to be wrong. Someone once said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. It would be nice if that were possible. The vision is that genomics and proteomics revolution are going to use cellular analysis and other technologies.
Where is innovation going to come from?
You see a lot of the innovation in the small companies that get formed. While I don’t think venture-capital funding is at an all-time high, but there is still a lot of that kind of investment in innovative technologies and ideas happening. And, you have the Institute for Systems Biology and, all over the country, you are seeing these innovative collaborative research grants, so you are going to start to see development of novel knowledge on the disease state.
Is that something you track as far as keeping the product line right at the cutting edge?
It is challenging to stay on the curve or ahead as much as possible. We do that through many things. Obviously, we work with our customers to understand what they need, which is the most important thing. Additionally, we have active programs in business development, and an advanced tech group that keeps us abreast of technological developments. At the end of the day, it is the customers and customer needs that are primary.
What does pharma want?
They spend a lot of time worrying about the acceptance of technology, particularly when you get into the area of what they are going to show the FDA. They are a relatively conservative buyer; they spend a lot of time trying to understand on what can you do for me today. They purchase a lot of our products, our cellular analysis tools, and our genetic analysis tools. What they want are tools to get them out of the situation they find themselves in today. They are challenged by ever more complex cross reactions, and ever more difficult diseases to solve. They want higher throughput, they want accepted technologies that they can take to the FDA and that the FDA understands what they are there to do. That is tough right now, this whole area of gene expression, proteomic analysis, biomarker analysis, that is hard for them and the FDA to really get their arms around. Throughput is an issue, because [pharma] tends to be a high-throughput environment where they want to look through millions of compounds, different disease states and at many different toxicology end points.
They want to fail fast, they want to fail drug candidates on the most valid information they can get.
Where is growth going to come from in terms of systems biology?
For systems biology, certain areas certainly speak to double-digit growth, particularly cellular analysis and proteomics. Those areas are ripe for new product offerings that pharma will invest in.
How do your products address the issue of interoperatility.
We integrate pretty well, especially when you look at our automation offering. We have had the ability to make our automation platform work together with other vendors’ platforms. Our success, particularly in clinical diagnostics, shows you that, and automation platforms over the years have shown that they are capable of the sharing of data. We try to do that. Our genomics offering has informatics within it that allows you to export data compatible with other packages. A customer not going to be satisfied with just a proprietary offering.