By Adrienne J. Burke
At Harvard Business School in the early ’90s, Marc Casper studied the famous case of the super-successful high-tech instruments conglomerate, Thermo Electron. But he never dreamed that 10 years later he’d find himself on the management team that would undertake reorganizing the mammoth operation. As a company VP and president of Thermo Electron’s $1 billion Life and Laboratory Sciences sector since December 2001, Casper has helped oversee Thermo’s transformation from a strictly investor-oriented holding company with 70-plus diverse businesses into a centralized, customer-directed business, half its former size, with one name, 11,000 employees, and a 6,500-square-foot tradeshow booth.
Now, under the watch of the 35-year-old exec, Thermo’s life sciences division has united and cross-trained its sales force, acquired CRS Robotics to help integrate some of its lab systems offerings, and partnered with Amersham Biosciences to capture a bigger piece of the proteomics market. With a $90 million R&D budget, the division Casper heads recently unveiled a new instrument, the Finnigan LTQ-FT, a $750,000 hybrid ion trap-Fourier transform mass spectrometer, which won accolades at the recent Pittcon analytical instruments trade show and, according to Casper, is generating impressive data that the company will publish at the ASMS conference next month.
GT visited Casper in mid-March at Thermo’s Waltham, Mass., HQ for a chat about what makes him nervous, what gets him jazzed, and what’s next for Thermo’s life sciences business.
How did you come to your current arrangement with Amersham, and what do you see as the benefits to each side?
There was a team of three people below [Amersham’s] Andrew Carr and me who did the bulk of the work, but Andrew and I were involved as well. It was a pretty exciting process. It took a few months and they were shuttling back and forth between Sweden and Piscataway and our operation in San Jose. They worked through first why we would want to work together and how the two companies have complementary skills, and then ultimately the details of how to start a relationship that’s going to have a lasting impact and help customers be successful.
The idea was arrived at jointly between Ivan Kamensky, one of the project leaders for Amersham, and Ian Jardine, our CTO, and others as well, but those two had known each other awhile and they really thought it would make sense to work together. In this industry where people know each other for long periods of time it’s often you have a problem that you don’t know a solution to and you decide how much you can do yourself versus how much you can get from a partner.
What was the problem that you were looking for a solution to?
Both companies were looking at customers in the proteomics area and independently each company couldn’t meet every single demand that the customers had. Amersham has a wonderful MALDI-TOF capability and a very strong set of customer relationships in the proteomics area because of their sample preparation capabilities in protein chemistry. Thermo Electron has an incredible range of ion trap mass spectrometers, which is very important to proteomics, and didn’t have the full range of customer access that we wanted.
When you look at it you can see we now have the full line of products together between MALDI and ion trap as well as now having a seamless commercial organization working together to cover those customers. It comes up as a better solution for the customers.
Thermo Finnigan used to have a MALDI. That was discontinued but now you’ve got one with Amersham. Were there regrets about discontinuing it?
It was a number of years ago and the company at the time was prioritizing its activity. Would it be nice to have one? Sure. But it was a decision made long ago.
I know that ABI has an alliance with MDS Sciex. Did that inspire you and Amersham to get together?
No, we really looked at it from a customer orientation and a need. It was less about an alliance. Applied Biosystems is a fine company and they serve their customers well, and we wanted to make sure that we could serve our customers very well and we thought the alliance made sense.
What are your projections for the future of the mass spec market for proteomics? At what point does everyone who needs a mass spec have one, and at what point do sales start leveling off?
The way we think about it is that the market will continue to grow as long as the technology continues to advance. Typically, mass spectrometers are placed on a five-to-six-year cycle, but customers are often willing to accelerate that replacement cycle based on the companies bringing out innovative products that meet customer needs. Provided that the major suppliers do that, we think that demand will continue to grow and be robust. If manufacturers don’t innovate, I think you’ll see demand flatten out very quickly. It’s very dependent on the innovation cycle.
We have not yet tapped out the capability of mass spectrometers. If you think about the typical proteomic analysis, often samples will have 10-million-plus cells involved. Someday we’d like to really be able to do proteomic analysis at the single-cell level. So the sensitivity, the resolution, the mass accuracy needs to continue to push the envelope to be able to do single-cell analysis. It’s not a product line where we feel like we’ve tapped up against the demands a customer might have. There are plenty of exciting opportunities in terms of developments ahead.
How far off do you think single-cell analysis is?
We have some years ahead of us yet. Right now it’s a concept, but it’s a ways out.
It sounds like the objective right now isn’t to make the technology less expensive; it’s to make it more specific and accurate.
Exactly. It really is about the performance of the mass spec.
Which instrument will your new hybrid replace and what kinds of people will upgrade to this?
It will be a certain portion of Q-TOFs, which is a different type of hardware, and it will be customers who have the most demanding applications for ion traps, as well as a certain portion of the FTMS market. It’s like every Pareto: if you’ve got 100 customers there are five that are really pushing the envelope on sensitivity and resolution and in that case those customers, whatever they’re doing — very complex mixtures of proteins — are the ones that would want the extra mass accuracy or resolution.
In the past year you’ve acquired CRS Robotics and struck up a partnership with Amersham. Do you have plans for other acquisitions or partnerships down the line?
The way we think about acquisitions and alliances is, “What does the customer need? Is there a gap in our portfolio that needs to be filled to meet critical customer demand?” When that criterion is met we decide whether an acquisition or an alliance is the best method to fill that gap.
In the case of CRS Robotics we had a very strong range of sample preparation equipment but it was not well integrated because there was no automation capability. You had standalone incubator, standalone centrifugation, standalone reader, and standalone liquid handlers. We wanted to be able to have little worksites with the software capability of Thermo CRS as well as the automation capability. We now have an automated incubator and a little work cell that can dispense reagents and do detection, so we can increase the throughput for our customers.
Looking forward, I think we will do acquisitions. We’ll only do ones that make the company stronger. We’re not doing acquisitions to make ourselves necessarily bigger. It’s really about adding strength. The kind of things you may see us do is add to our sample preparation capabilities. We have a nice range today but there are probably some areas that we might want to add to. We’ll probably strengthen some of our software offerings as well.
Now that the restructuring is done at Thermo, is it your main objective to become number one in the market over ABI?
Our main objective is very clear: we want to enable better scientific discovery. We want to help our customers be successful. That’s our goal. We think if we focus on that that’s equal to being number one and we’ll let our market share and our size take care of itself by focusing on the customer. It’s not about a ranking.
I heard that to help integrate the Thermo organization and increase your commercial capabilities you’ve encouraged your sales force to start sharing their leads. That’s a real sociological change! How do you go about getting a staff of 1,000 people to change behaviors like that?
Actually, it was a very fun process for all involved. We ran company-wide commercial meetings to kick off the year. Life and Laboratory Sciences brought together roughly 500 people in Europe and 500 in North America to a single meeting. We broke out in regional teams so that people could know everybody who is working in their geography. We trained the organization on what products we have and what is our strategy, and we put in programs to encourage cooperative behavior, team success, and sharing leads.
The feedback was awesome. People are thrilled to be part of a company that’s on the move and building. It exceeded my wildest expectations in terms of enthusiasm. You could feel the vibration and the energy — that’s how excited people were.
We put in software tools to make it easy for our sales representatives to pass leads. If it’s not intrusive then people are more willing to embrace change. It’s easy to identify who sells the product in what geography; it’s an easy way of finding out everything we do. If they hear that a customer is looking for a freezer they can type in “freezer” and see all of our range easily.
At Pittcon in 2002 the Thermo booth was so enormous that there was an information booth within it to help visitors find what they needed. It was the first time all your separate entities exhibited in one booth. People in the booth were saying, “I never met these people before,” or, “I didn’t even know we owned this company.” It was remarkable.
And you know what’s different a year later? It happened seamlessly. Through repetition and town hall meetings and putting in common approaches, what was totally new a year ago is very familiar a year later. I watched it over and over this year at Pittcon: a customer would come in to see the new FT-IR product and when they were done I would observe [our staff asking], “Do you need something in chromatography? What else are you in the market for?” And people who worked in the booth knew where everything was and what was hot and they would know each other.
It’s all about making the customer experience really positive, and that’s what we’re trying to do — every aspect, from the early part when you’re thinking about buying something to the part where you’re buying the product, to the installation, the training, the support, the service, and ultimately the retirement of the product — the whole life-cycle experience. If you manage that well and the customer is happy with the process, they’re more likely to buy from you again when they retire the product as well as to buy other products.
What would you say is the greatest strength of the company now?
Our greatest competitive advantage is our people. I’m 100 percent confident about that. From the scientists and engineers to the terrific people that manufacture and our commercial organization. The heart and soul of Thermo is our 11,000 dedicated employees. That’s the thing that I’m most proud of.
On the flip side, what is the thing that keeps you awake at night?
It’s hard to have insomnia. We work pretty hard. We travel the world regularly and we’ll be from place to place meeting customers, working with employees, solving issues, so I sleep pretty well! But I think the thing I worry most about is the macro economy. It doesn’t affect Thermo any differently — it’s an industry problem, it’s not a Thermo problem. But it’s real and we have to work harder to be successful in more challenging times.
Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel or have a projection for how long you need to weather this storm?
As a leadership team here our macroeconomic view is that the market conditions will be tough at least through the third quarter of this year, potentially the fourth quarter. But late this year we see an improvement. But that’s our view and obviously the war is going to be an important component. But we do see some reason to be optimistic.