The press release announcing the departure of Michael Hunkapiller, longtime face of Applied Biosystems, left more questions than answers. Hunkapiller had “decided to retire, effective immediately,” according to the release, and had headed straight for a two-week vacation in Hawaii where he could not be reached, according to an ABI spokesman.
The one thing that was clear as industry watchers scratched their heads about Hunkapiller’s surprise exit was that Catherine Burzik, COO, would be taking the reins as president.
Burzik joined ABI in September 2003 after spending six years as president of Johnson & Johnson’s Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics unit. There, she was responsible for worldwide operations — including R&D, quality assurance, systems information, and human resources — as well as sales and marketing in the Americas, Burzik says. Before J&J, she hung her shingle at Eastman Kodak, where she ran that company’s diagnostic imaging division. Her early career years were more on the technical side, working in R&D and software engineering, she says.
With her strong diagnostics background, Burzik says she is looking into ways to more closely link Applera’s three business units — ABI, Celera, and Celera Diagnostics. “I have worked in the last year on building a strong relationship with [Celera and Celera Diagnostics president] Kathy Ordoñez,” says Burzik, who knew Ordoñez from her J&J days when Ordoñez worked at Roche Molecular Systems. While ABI already builds instruments such as sequencers that can be used in diagnostic arenas, Burzik says her team will continue to seek out opportunities to create instruments, software, or reagents that will play into Ordoñez’s territory. “I think it’s somewhat far down the road, [but] I’d like to see … us developing instruments” to advance personalized medicine, Burzik says.
When she joined ABI last year, Burzik says it was not with the plan of soon heading up the company. “I expected that Mike would be here for a long time,” she says. Early this year, Tony White asked her to oversee a company-wide strategic review to make sure ABI was on track for future growth. That review stretched into three phases: first, examining “each product line … from a growth perspective [and] making sure R&D was being targeted at the highest-growth areas for the future of the company,” Burzik says; second, an organizational overhaul that morphed ABI into a four-division company focusing on molecular biology, proteomics, applied markets, and services; and the third phase, still underway by late summer, which entailed looking into potential acquisition targets to see whether that kind of investment would be suitable for the company. “We may decide against doing any of that,” Burzik says. (Asked about rumors that ABI may be acquiring Illumina, Burzik declined to comment, but pointed out that ABI and Illumina had recently settled all outstanding litigation against one another.)
Burzik stresses that “we’re not going to dramatically change what Applied Biosystems is all about,” she says. She has her sights on systems biology, saying that the company “is uniquely positioned to bring more integrated solutions to the marketplace” and is also particularly eager to get into what she calls applied markets, citing forensics and environmental work (such as airborne pathogen detection) as examples.
Burzik’s goals for the company indicate her to be part realist, part idealist. She hopes to take the company on a path “that from a growth perspective [would] grow our top line more rapidly than we have recently been able to do so that we’d have continuous double-digit growth,” she says. Scientifically speaking, “I’d love to be able to look back five years from now and say because of AB products the human condition for people around the world has been dramatically improved,” she adds.
Tall order. But, she points out, “You have to have big goals.”
— Meredith Salisbury