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Competitors Could Be Partners in Thermo s Plans for High-Content Screening Space

Thermo Electron will launch its own high-content screening platform next week, and while it will compete against established players in the cell screening space, including GE Healthcare, Fisher Scientific, Molecular Devices, and Becton Dickinson, the firm will also look to partner with these rivals.

Thermo will launch its HCS WorkCell platform next week at the LabAutomation 2006 Conference in Palm Springs, Calif. The turnkey platform will integrate other firms' HCS imagers into instrumentation developed by Thermo.

"We've gone to the end customer who has bought standalone imagers and stand-alone imaging capabilities, and quickly found out that a standalone imager doesn't meet their needs in throughput and walk-away time," said Christopher McNary, Thermo's vice president and general manager of Laboratory Automation Solutions. "So, they've called us in as an integrator and we have integrated their imager into an automated solution that allows them to get a great degree of walk-away time."

The WorkCell platform that will be launched next week will include GE Healthcare's InCell as part of the integrated imager, McNary said. Pricing for the platform has not been released yet, and he said that would depend on the customization of each instrument.

"We think we're clearly differentiated from people who are just offering robotic-type solutions, which are left up to the customer to try and interface into their system. We've invested a lot of effort … to come up with software that integrates the back-end data side seamlessly into LIMS or other informatics systems."

Though not known primarily for its work in the cell screening space, McNary told BioCommerce Week in an interview today that the firm has been active in the field for four or five years. "We've also dealt with companies on an OEM basis, where we are the integration partner to those companies. So, there are companies such as Molecular Devices that have been buying our CataLyst Express robotic arm, and we have integrated not turnkey solutions, but [we've taken] a standalone imager and made it more automation-friendly," he said.

According to McNary, Thermo will distribute the WorkCell through its own direct channel as a turnkey HCS system, which will allow the integration of a wide variety of imagers into this system. The firm also plans to co-market or private license its system to other companies. "We are talking to the major imaging companies, and talking about some co-marketing and/or distribution opportunities, though they're not finalized at this time," McNary said.

McNary said the firm believes it offers three key advantages in competing against others in the HCS market. First, he said the WorkCell has been made and developed expressly for high-content screening. "It isn't an adaptation or modification of another platform," he said.

He also cited Thermo's software capabilities as a key selling point. "We think we're clearly differentiated from people who are just offering robotic-type solutions, which are left up to the customer to try and interface into their system," McNary said. "We've invested a lot of effort … to come up with software that integrates the back-end data side seamlessly into LIMS or other informatics systems."

He also noted that the WorkCell offers a much smaller footprint than other instruments and is an enclosed system, thereby protecting the cells.

The firm has been fairly quiet about the launch of the platform, and Thermo executives didn't mention the product at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference last week in San Francisco. However, Marijn Dekkers, Thermo's president and CEO, may have dropped a hint when he said during the company's breakout session, "The love affair pharma has had with high-throughput screening … is not intelligent enough for the next generation of drugs."

The Competitive Landscape

It isn't surprising that Thermo is entering the HCS field, given its previous work with other HCS providers and its cell-based assay play, the CRS Cell-Based Assay System. The firm's entry also is part of a trend that has seen numerous multi-platform tool providers jump into the market.

Cell analysis and ADME-Tox were two fields mentioned frequently at the JPMorgan conference by BCW Index firms, many of which now have a play either in the instrument or consumable part of the cell-screening market.

"We are tightly connected to the market and our customers, and the trend to go to anything cell-based has been driving market growth over the last couple of years," McNary said.

Thermo will be joining a rapidly expanding field, which includes several large firms in the research tools space that have swallowed up smaller players that were primarily responsible for early development of high-content screening technology. The most recent to join this field was Fisher Scientific, which acquired HCS pioneer Cellomics at the end of August 2005 for $49 million (see BioCommerce Week 9/15/2005).

Fisher believes Cellomics, which had about $13 million in revenues last year, owns roughly 40 percent of the HCS-instrument market, though a January 2004 report from research firm Research and Markets said Cellomics had about a 45-percent market share. Also, according to a Research and Markets survey of 75 HCS users conducted in March 2005, Cellomics' ArrayScan was the most common instrument purchased.

It is quite likely, however, that Cellomics' market share has recently declined, as a slew of comparatively larger companies — such as Molecular Devices, Evotec Technologies, BD Biosciences, and Beckman Coulter — made significant headway in 2004 by either introducing new HCS instruments or beefing up existing product offerings.

Beckman, though, recently confirmed that it would no longer market its IC 100 HCS product (see BioCommerce Week 11/24/2005). The firm, which undertook a reorganization in the second half of 2005, decided that the HCS field wasn't in its long-term plans, so it shuttered its San Diego-based Cell Analysis and Development Center — which houses R&D and service for the IC 100 technology that Beckman acquired along with startup Q3DM in late 2003.

— Edward Winnick ([email protected])

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