Following the recent formation of its Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine business, Invitrogen announced this week that it hired noted NIH stem cell researcher Mahendra Rao to lead the business.
The stem cell business has previously not gained as much attention as Invitrogen's other units, which have been bolstered by a string of acquisitions over the past couple of years. The firm realigned its businesses in December under two units, BioDiscovery and BioProduction, in an effort to put those acquired pieces together and better serve its customer base (see BioCommerce Week 12/8/2005).
This week, Joydeep Goswami, vice president of the stem cells business, took time out from the BIO 2006 Conference in Chicago to talk with BioCommerce Week about where the stem cell business fits within Invitrogen's wide variety of offerings and what it offers customers.
When did Invitrogen form this Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine business?
It was actually formed before the realignment. It was formed last October.
Which part of Invitrogen's business does it fall under: BioProduction or BioDiscovery?
It's actually a separate division. It's really a group by itself and is currently under R&D. There's a reason for this. In most of the businesses, Invitrogen focuses on specific products or specific product lines, whereas this particular business unit was created with one goal in mind, which was to serve the stem cell researcher. Regardless of what technologies or which business unit the technology resided in, it is our goal to provide the technology in the right format to the customer.
What kind of products are you offering, and who are the primary customers — biotech, academic?
First of all, customers are obviously stem cell researchers who are in labs around the globe, whether industrial or academic labs. There are a number of researchers who are also now in biotech companies that are looking at stem cell research and looking at products and therapies based on stem cell research. And then we've also been doing work with companies like Baxter. We're in clinical trials … Baxter uses our Dynabead technology in their CD34+ cells for myocardia ischemia. So, it's really a wide variety of customers from basic research into the clinic.
What are you showing customers or potential partners at BIO?
BIO is actually a good way to reach out to people and tell them about our products, especially at the executive level and the senior vice president level, and introduce them at a global level. We have meetings with people from China, from India, from Singapore, and Sweden. It's pretty productive for us to introduce them to our concept of end-to-end tools and a technologies platform that meets their needs. If you look at the stem cell research work flow, regardless of the kind of stem cell, you're looking at essentially four elements: there's isolation of stem cells, which really is separating and purifying the stem cell from a mixed population of other cells. The second part is getting the particular cell and characterizing it, figuring out what type of cell it is. The third part is then growing it up and expanding it in a pluripotent state, so you get lots of different cells, and this is very key if you want to have an economical and affordable therapy in the future. The last part is differentiating the cell into its desired population or end state, whether it be a cardiomyocite or a neuron or whatever else.
So, we offer a unique set of tools and technology platforms across each one of these four elements. And the value we're bringing is not only unique technologies in each one of these research workflow areas, but then being able to put them together and make sure that the reagents across these platforms or across these workflow areas are matched and the scientist can basically use any technology with any other technology that we have and doesn't have to play around or optimize their particular reagent.
Is there any crossover with what the stem cell group is doing and what you offer in the other parts of your business?
Absolutely. That's the whole value proposition. That's why we can get these technologies to customers today rather than having them wait for three years for tools. For instance, antibodies, which is one of the areas we have been quite active in. We offer stem cell researchers high-quality antibodies to distinguish their particular stem cells. Other examples could be media and cytokines. These are very critical. Thirdly, if you look at services such as cell-banking services, which are key to ensure that your cells are what you say they are and are free of pathogens and viruses and contaminants. Those are services we provide through our BioReliance subsidiary to cell banks today — and HLA typing services to ensure that the HLA match is correct for transplants. We offer those services today for companies.
What does the competitive landscape look like? Is this a fairly crowded space, or are there only a few competitors?
I think when we look across, there are very few companies that offer the breadth and depth of technologies and products that we offer. But we do realize there are competitors in niches or verticals that are there in the space. Our value proposition to the customer is in two dimensions, and that's how we compete in this area: good science leading to good products, but also things that work across their value chain rather than one part of the value chain. The other part of this is that since we have a history with GMP processes and ISO certification and have served the pharmaceutical community for a while. We understand GMP and their needs.
Is the customer base for your products limited by political and legal issues? If so, does this mean that sales efforts are concentrated outside of the US?
For us, being a global company, we see customers wherever they are around the globe. I think if you're asking the question could the US be doing more to fund, especially embryonic stem cell research, I think the answer is absolutely yes. Could we benefit from that, in terms of having access to customers in the United States? Absolutely. There are both funding and IP issues that curtail the market in the United States, especially with respect to companies that are doing work to develop therapies from embryonic stem cell research. But that's an area where things are where they are, and I think our focus is more on the customers that are there.
When the funding becomes available either through the US government or through California's regenerative medicine or other state efforts, we're actually going to offer those technologies to people that need them. We're continuing our work irrespective of the amount of funding that's going on. Clearly, I think the area of science would benefit a lot with more funding. There's no doubt about that.
What benefits will Dr. Rao bring to Invitrogen?
It's a huge benefit for us, and huge honor really to have Dr. Rao. He's been one of the leaders in this field. He was a leading scientist at NIH. He's published over 100 papers in the area of stem cells and stem cell characterization. It's a benefit for us from the scientific point of view but also gives us a huge amount of credibility globally in this particular area.
What are the long-term goals for this business?
As we move forward, our goal is to develop and market animal origin-free components and reagents. Then, of course, we are very much involved in supporting stem cell banking and testing facilities, which are key if these therapies are ever going to be used in humans.
On a different note, we are also pretty heavily involved in creating … the next stage of reagents for this field, which involves engineered cells that can provide a visual readout of when a cell is deciding to go into a particular state, when a stem cell decides to differentiate. We will have the ability to provide the scientist a visual cue in that the cell will turn green or red or whatever color we want it to based on exactly the choice the cell has made, and this is something that is not available today and it really slows down research. The same kind of technology can also be used in fundamentally changing the drug discovery screening area, because for the first time, you will have the ability to produce completely reproducible cells that are not transformed. We can approach this area really from our expertise in labeling and detection, cell biology, and molecular biology, and we're actively working in this area as well.
Can you say how much in revenue the stem cell business brings in?
I don't think so. As a company, we don't release that information publicly.