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FEATURE: Motorola Goes Sub-Cellular as it Expands into Life Sciences

NEW YORK, Oct 6 - While Motorola is still much better known for its cell phones than its sub-cellular technology, life sciences will play a key role in its future business strategy, senior executives said Friday.

“We think the next science for Motorola is molecular biology,” Rud Istvan, Motorola’s senior vice president and general manager for the company’s future business division, told GenomeWeb . “Our intent is to grow a major third leg for the corporation” in this area.   

This “third leg”, Istvan conceded, will bring in much less revenue than the other two legs, wireless communications and solid-state physics. But this is only because Motorola has such a strong global reach in these areas, he pointed out.

This year, Motorola’s current businesses are expected to bring in $40 billion in revenue, so even if the life sciences businesses grow to several billion dollars, they will still represent a small fraction of company revenues.  

Although Motorola declined to offer a figure for projected revenues from the life science-based products,  BioChips are expected to comprise a big chunk of that business. The company has so far shipped low-density chips to drug discovery genomics company Iconix this July. And, despite rumors of development problems, shipments of higher-density BioChips are expected to be ready to ship by the end of the year, BioChip marketing director

Nancy Schmelkin said.

Motorola is also working on clinical microsensors, low-end chips that have small numbers of probes for clinical use, and a proteomics BioChip that will use the same Bioarray system as the expression and SNP probes, according to Istvan.  

The microsensors and the proteomics chip are scheduled to become available by the end of 2001.

Motorola is also in the process of forming a partnership with an undisclosed private company to develop wireless medical devices that could employ BioChip technology. These devices would monitor patient vital signs and cardiac functions. The partnership will involve “our technology and our patents but their understanding of what doctors in hospitals need together,” Istvan said .

By combining life sciences with wireless technologies, analysts said Motorola would be able to leverage its experience to develop new revenue streams.  

“I think the strategy is to build on their experience in the chip world and apply it in genomics,” explained David Heger, an analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons.

According to Motorola, the DNA molecule is a tiny information storage and processing molecule, similar to the way semiconductors are information storage and processing devices.  

David Wang, who recently left his position of director of applied genomics at Motorola’s BioChip division, thinks this strategy is a sound one.

“We are getting into a new area where engineers and mathematicians are going to play a more important role than biologists will” in the development of microarray technology, Wang told GenomeWeb. “In the next few years, people from the semiconductor area will play more a more of a role in this arena.”  

Wang explained that he left Motorola to found a new Genomics initiative, not because—as was speculated by some—he was unhappy with the direction Motorola’s BioChip unit was taking.

“I think they are doing great stuff,” Wang said. “The customer response [to the first chips shipped] is going very well.”

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