When Andrew Carmen, genomic operations manager for Johnson & Johnson’s Pharmaceutical Research and Development unit in La Jolla, wanted to make a hybridization robot to improve his array facility, the choice was easy: he went to Zymark and has been very happy with the results. Now that he’s working with Affymetrix to design a high-throughput array system using the GeneChip, custom-designed robotics from Zymark (now part of Caliper Life Sciences) are still the way to go for Carmen.
Carmen benefits from what many pharma researchers might consider an oddity: a years-long partnership with a tech vendor known for understanding his company’s needs. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without that,” he says of the facility he oversees.
The Zymark-J&J relationship actually goes back long before arrays entered the picture. It began when Mary Jo Wildey, team leader for the screening and compound logistics center, joined the pharma in 1995 — bringing with her connections to the robotics company she had dealt with in her previous job. When she faced the challenge of setting up a high-throughput screening facility in the Raritan, NJ, branch of J&J, she called her friends at Zymark to help.
Most unusual of all, perhaps, was that she also called a friend at Boehringer Ingelheim who headed up that pharma’s screening work. In a move that remains fairly unorthodox in the field, the pharmas worked together with Zymark to design a system they could both use. While many researchers would worry that technology is too competitive to share development, Wildey says J&J got “way further ahead by that collaboration than we would’ve been by doing it individually.” And because the focus was so much on engineering and building a robust technology, she notes, competition was never an issue.
That system — now Caliper’s Allegro tool, which has since been placed at some 35 sites in organizations around the world, according to Caliper CEO Kevin Hrusovsky — was an entirely new way to consider automated screening. Wildey says it was originally called the “bucket brigade” because the technique Zymark suggested for moving microtiter plates along an assembly line looked just like “people standing in a row, handing a bucket from one person to the next. … There was nothing earth-shattering about it,” she adds, “it’s just that nobody had that idea before.”
Wildey says one key to developing a useful relationship with Zymark was having many long discussions about exactly what J&J needed and how the tool would be used. The vendor’s customer support impressed her: when the beta version of Allegro arrived in early 1998, Wildey says, “Zymark was incredibly flexible. We called them at all hours day and night -- they basically lived here for the first nine months.” Together, the Zymark crew and Wildey’s group sawed holes, taped pieces together, and ultimately arrived at a system that can take a 3,000 plate library and get through it in a couple of weeks, compared to the eight months it used to take.
“That’s unusual in a lot of vendors,” Wildey points out. “[Most] go back and they build their piece of hardware [or] software and they drop it on your doorstep.” J&J was so pleased with the instrument that it now has three separate systems at its different R&D sites.
“Most vendors have the same [problems]. Most of them have very similar tools that they offer you,” Wildey says. “It’s more about the relationship that you have with the company from a standpoint of service and sales and being able to talk with them about new ideas to move forward.” After the good experience she had with Allegro, Wildey has spent the last few years working with Zymark on a MEMS-based nanoliter pipetting instrument as well as various software interfaces to make her technology easier for other pharma researchers to use.
The upshot of it all is that Wildey in particular sees the importance of building a relationship with a vendor, rather than hiring a company for a one-off and never teaming up again. Her advice for choosing a vendor isn’t the kind of checklist some people offer, but she says it’s brought her success: “It’s like a people relationship,” she says. “You just have to have a good feeling.”