After 30 years with Hewlett-Packard and spin-off Agilent Technologies, Chris van Ingen retired this week. He has spent the last seven years as president of the Bio-Analytical Measurement business, formerly the Life Sciences and Chemical Analysis unit.
Last week, in an interview with BioCommerce Week van Ingen reflected on his years with Agilent and how the company and industry have changed during his tenure. The following is an edited version of that interview.
Why is the timing right for you to retire from Agilent?
I think there are a number of factors. First and foremost, I’ve been with the company for over 30 years. Secondly, as the president of the business I set a number of goals about seven years ago, and we will achieve those goals at the end of the year. Then you look at your personal interests and say, “There never is a good time to leave,” but business is on a high and it’s doing well. We’ve been able to fundamentally rebalance the portfolio and get to profitable growth, so I think this I the right time. And there’s a set of good leaders in place to sustain the momentum.
How did you get started there?
I got started in 1977. I’m a chemist by training. I was working in the Institute for Nutrition and Food Research in the Netherlands and doing mass spectrometry. And those were the days when Hewlett Packard decided get into the mass spec business. They didn’t have a lot of expertise, particularly in the applications arena. So, they approached me and said, “Instead of being a customer, would you consider joining the company?” And that’s what I did.
Since Agilent spun off from HP in 1999 what have been some of the most significant changes for the company and the industries it serves?
As the total measurement sector in Hewlett-Packard, we were a relatively small part of the business, particularly when HP went into the consumer computer products. About seven years ago when they were truly looking at the portfolio of the company they were not unlocking the value of the measurement business, which, by the way, was the genesis of HP. Being a premier measurement company, focused on a few keys markets, helped the company overall in terms of positioning itself and looking at synergies between the various businesses. Importantly for the life sciences and chemical analysis business, we are really focusing on the fastest growing market segment that the measurement market has.
[In] chemical analysis and life sciences both, while there has been a phenomenal focus in the industry and push in life sciences, analytical sciences are still a very key part of our portfolio, and more importantly a lot of tools we are developing for the focused life sciences space are very applicable in the rest of our target markets as well. For example, you look at high-end mass spec. It’s not only proteomics; it’s certainly applicable in the environmental space and food safety, and traditional testing markets. So, I think the leverage of developing the tools, leveraging the tools into the industrial markets has really been the focus and has worked very well.
It’s sort of a continuum, this whole space — from the petroleum and chemical markets, which is predominantly analytical sciences. But then as you move through the markets — environmental, food safety, forensics — lots of tools that are developed for life science can be used there as well.
What are some of the larger trends you would expect to see over the next several years, particularly in the life sciences research field?
[As I] look at life sciences, and looking back a number of years ago [to] when the genome was sequenced, everyone thought, “Wow. This is going to unlock a lot of the secrets about biology.” And then they came to he realization that, “Yes, we have a lot more information, but we still don’t have enough to understand the biology.” You saw this major focus about seven or eight years ago in the proteomics space, high-throughput facilities being built up. As you know, proteomics is not an easy field. It’s complex. And now there is a heightened focus on metabolomics.
What it means to me is that I think it’s going to take a number of years before we truly understand the pathways, how cells really work. I think all of this will be a multi-technology approach [in understanding] systems biology. I don’t think we’re going to solve that in the next five years, but if the industry can define the top 10 or 15 critical pathways — and it may be a combination of applications in genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics — and being able to distill information out of these multiple experiments on how the biology really works, that will be the key focus.
And you think this is something Agilent can capitalize on?
I think that has been the key focus for us. There’s always the balance between large and small molecules. You see that in proteomics — it was all about large molecules. Now metabolomics, well, suddenly small molecules are important again.
I think it’s going to be a combination of the two, having the right tools to do large and small molecule analysis, and have the right informatics to fundamentally unlock some of the secrets of biology. And you see that focus in big pharma, biotech, [and] academia. Many governments are supporting that research that was predominantly focused in North America or the US, and now every country is investing in life sciences.
When Agilent divested some of its assets a couple of years ago, it became a much smaller company, yet still a fairly large player in this industry. From that perspective, what are your thoughts on competing — with all of the consolidation that has gone on — in the life science tools space? Is it possible to still compete as a smaller firm, or is scale absolutely necessary at this point?
I think it is [necessary]. We’re still just a very large measurement company compared to many of our competitors in the industry. We can use the assets of the company. Certainly for Agilent, the life sciences and chemical analysis business is the key area of growth and opportunity. For us, to use the cash in the company to continue to expand the portfolio is where we’re focused on. In the last few years, we’ve really found the right balance between organic growth and M&A. But the issue is not simply to be big, but to have a portfolio which is cohesive, which allows you to offer customers in the target markets you’re after to have a better set of tools that are all connected.
Our focus is eventually to provide researchers a set of tools which will enable them to do experiments that will help the understanding in the systems biology area. And I believe that’s still the right way to go. You can get big and have lots of tools, but if there’s no synergy, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Is there anything you wanted to do at Agilent that you didn’t get the chance to do?
Basically, since I became the group manager about seven years ago, I’ve really been able to take a holistic look at the portfolio, what are our strengths, what are our weaknesses, [and] we’ve been able to redirect the investments from our core to key growth initiatives and also be able to pick selective acquisitions targets to round out our portfolio. You can always say there are things I could have done more aggressively, but I think the ability to build capacity in the organization, so the team can absorb it and integrate all of it, I didn’t feel I was limited at all.
You need focus. I really focused on the analytical part, when seven years ago everybody said, “Why don’t you sell it off?” The challenge I gave to the GM of that business [was to] grow 10 percent or greater. I told the same to the life sciences person. I think you can do that with really good focus on markets and workflows, because many of the tools are not growing more rapidly than 7 or 8 percent with an exception of a few new areas. It’s all about wrapping value around the technologies and focusing on the key markets.
What’s next for you?
I really would like to stay connected to the industry. I have a number of opportunities to serve on boards of small companies. First and foremost, I’d like to take a few months off and travel.
Will you stay in the US?
Yeah, we actually became US citizens about six years ago. We like the Bay area, so that’s going to be our home.