Tim Riley has been involved with the commercialization of mass spectrometry instrumentation since 1984 when he joined VG Instruments, which was acquired by Fisons Instruments in 1990, and then spun off as Micromass in 1996. Then, in 1997, Waters purchased Micromass and Riley served as president of the US sales and services division. Currently, Riley is vice president of proteomics business development for Waters. BioCommerce Week spoke to Riley recently to get a view of the company’s business development strategy for proteomics.
How does Waters organize its proteomics segment?
We have a core instrumentation sales organization, a mass spectrometry specialist sales organization; and then we have other specialist organizations to support chemistry and data products.
The MS specialists are something less than 25 percent of the total field sales organization so they are a substantial group and they are highly trained. For the most part, they are part of the old Micromass organization. The specialists handle the higher-end triple quadrupole applications, and all the proteomics and metabolite ID and metabolism-type applications.
Most of the [mass spec specialists] have a pretty strong history with the company. We have a lot of PhDs, and people with 10-years-plus experience in the support organization, and in the specialist sales group. In the protein world, we have been playing very aggressively since 1995, and really have come up through the ranks with our Q-TOF technology, so really we had to be intimately involved along the way. We have applications chemists, support people who are very familiar with how our MS-MS technologies can be applied to proteomics. The Q-TOF is a key product for that area. We do have MALDI instrumentation as well but we are not a major provider of MALDI instrumentation.
How is the group organized geographically?
The country is divided into four regions, and each region has its own core sale operations, its own field services, and its own specialty operations. All are regionally managed at this point and all report back to Milford [Mass].
The country is divided into the Northeast, Southeast, West, and the Midwest, which takes a chunk out of the middle of the country from North toSsouth.
What does demand look like geographically?
It’s kind of interesting with the two coasts. There is a big client base for us in pharma and biotech, so it’s centered around where those centers are for mass spec sales — the big R&D segment in the northeast around the Boston area, and a lot of pharmaceuticals in New Jersey and the eastern Pennsylvania area. And then you have the California center. But, interestingly enough, we have always had very strong mass spectrometry sales through the middle part of the country as well. And, of course, you can’t ignore the rest of the world. We have big European and Asian operations.
How do Asia and Europe look to you in terms of growth and discovery?
I just came back from China, and I’m quite surprised by how up to date they are in China and Japan. There wasn’t as big a difference in what they are trying to accomplish in their research and development as compared to what we are doing over here. China is quite surprising in the level of funding they are making available for proteomic research and development. They have established several centers that are really quite state-of-the-art for research and development.
Can you talk a little bit about the demand for mass spectrometry for proteomics applications?
We continue to see double-digit growth in mass spec for proteomics. I think it has been fairly strong even after the genomics bubble, I wouldn’t say burst, but after that whole activity area died down to some extent. The demand for mass spec products has been fairly strong for proteomics applications for the last three years. While there has been a lot of other change in demand for mass spectrometry products, I see a continued particularly strong academic marketplace. And, pharma is making investment outside and some [pharma companies] are considering taking those investments inside. It’s a pretty active area. My sense is that big pharma is sitting back and seeing what falls out of this dynamic situation. We are selling some products into exploratory activities for a lot of different customers. And, in terms of making major in-house investments, I think big pharma sees value in having their biomarker intellectual property developed in-house.
What would the typical purchase look like from academia?
You do see some academic facilities that are only now starting some kind of a core activity to support proteomics — a core analytical facility, for example. But, for the most part, that has been done. These people are increasingly sophisticated and they are adding onto these already established core facilities. Or, individual researchers are setting up their individual analytical capability and becoming a little less dependent on some kind of core activity.
How are the Acquity and Premier product lines doing?
We introduced the Acquity [UPLC in combination with the] Q-TOF Premier at the ASMS conference last year and we are just starting to ship the instrument this quarter. We have had some reasonable uptake in orders. We are fairly happy with how things are going so far.
The typical solution would be an Acuity system in combination with a Q-TOF Micro or a Q-TOF Premier, and it would probably have some specialized informatics associated with it. We have some very nice solutions for looking at non-covalently bonded and intact proteins using an LCT Premier instrument and a very nice little benchtop MALDI product.
What are the growth opportunities for proteomics?
A growth opportunity might be in clinical applications. I think a number of people really consider proteomics a discovery tool for biomarkers that could naturally evolve for personalized medicine applications for clinical analysis for a variety of end points.
Who would be making those buying decisions?
I don’t see mass spec moving into a doctor’s office in the next couple of years. There are some hospital organizations that are really quite sophisticated in their medical support operations and you could go into the bigger clinical type organizations as well.
What are the chances that these kinds of platforms can be replaced by faster, quicker, whatever, types of technologies?
It has always been that way, and it’s going to be that way. It’s an innovative field and the proteomics part is not a mature field at all. No one has the perfect solution. The various techniques are complementary in some respect, but it will probably take a variety of tools to solve it. This is a useful tool, not just for biomarker discovery but also for studying protein-protein interactions, for studying protein-drug interactions, for doing gene-knockout type studies. It’s the ability to look at a complex protein mixture and determine what qualitatively is present at the same time, determine what is different between two mixtures, and what is quantitatively different between a control state and a disease state, which is a very useful capability.
Where is the MS for proteomics in terms of overall development?
Mass spec is an extremely powerful tool in combination with liquid chromatography of one type or another. The bottom line is that the proteomics analytical challenge is one of the toughest you could imagine and really is quite a challenging analytical application. It’s not going to be solved overnight. People are going to continue to come up with more improvements in how you can address the problems.
Where is innovation going to come from?
I don’t think any of the mass spec vendors will corner the market. We will have our tool offerings that will continue to get more powerful and better. The interesting thing is that MS instrumentation is probably not the weak point, it’s the informatics, it’s being able use the information that you gather to its full extent that is the weak point.
What is the market seeking in new products?
We have lists that take you out years and years, and we have products that we believe are appropriate to prioritize and under development. We try to look out three to five years but we would like to look further. You do have to make adjustments as the technologies and demands change. We have a reasonably broad product range, so you can afford to try to determine where you want to go with different technologies, and complement them as you roll forward with the right kind of detail that makes them appropriate for the marketplace. There is always a longer-term component of this development as well as a somewhat shorter term that makes this all work.
Is mass-spec ready for massive industrial scale?
This is a very personal opinion. The work that they are doing at PNNL is very impressive. I think that a government-sponsored facility research-and-development program that can work at that scale is very exciting. Is that the future across the planet? Probably not, I think typically much smaller installations working in individual researchers’ labs will be responsible for an awful lot of important discoveries. But there is a place for a few sites like PNNL, too, that are very intriguing. We are not designing our business to sell to 70-unit installations; we are designing our business to address the smaller lab opportunities.
So, is informatics the lynchpin in this market?
There is a lot to this whole issue. I don’t think I can propose to be an expert on the whole subject. The larger facilities like the PNNL have their own in-house informatics capabilities and they will probably produce their own solutions. The different mass-spec vendors are adding value, very significant value, to their products through turnkey informatics solutions as well. We think we are building very much on the advanced capacity of the answers that we can get from our tools, our HPLC/MS solutions. Can we guarantee that we can take the results produced by one other person’s chromatography solutions made into somebody else MS solutions and get the same caliber result? No, not necessarily. And I don’t know that we want to make the investment that would build the confidence that we could turn to the customer and say, yeah you can put any combination you want to and this software will support that. That is probably not where we would go. We will stick to the turnkey solutions that we provide.