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Waters Turns Up Heat on Agilent LC Rivalry Through Mass-Spec Alliance with Thermo

Aiming to retain its place at the top of the liquid chromatography market, Waters this week inked a collaboration to integrate its Acquity UPLC system with Thermo Electron's mass spectrometry products.

Waters views the collaboration as a vote of confidence from Thermo in its UPLC system, which faces a competitive threat from Agilent Technologies' recently introduced high-speed LC system as well as its combined LC/MS platform.

For Thermo, the deal will fulfill customer requests that they have the ability to use UPLC technology with their mass spec instruments — especially among those who have been using both platforms already.

Though Waters officials said it is too early to quantify the benefits of integrating the technologies, they expect the collaboration to help drive migration of current HPLC users to the higher-end UPLC system.

The alliance with Thermo follows a similar earlier collaboration between the firms on HPLC/MS, but Gene Cassis, Waters' vice president of investor relations, said the firms are betting that the enhancements offered by UPLC will entice additional customers.

"In terms of the HPLC, it was clearly a convenience function. In the case of UPLC, it's convenience and performance," Cassis told BioCommerce Week.


"It's our philosophy that we want to enable customers to use our mass specs and whatever LCs" customers prefer.

For Thermo, the alliance is another in a series of partnerships to integrate its mass-spec instruments with LC manufacturers, including Waters' rivals Agilent, GE Healthcare, and Dionex. The alliance with Agilent is for the firm's earlier-generation 1100 Series LC system, not the recently introduced 1200 Series — the primary competitor to Waters' Acquity system.

"Really, it's our philosophy that we want to enable customers to use our mass specs and whatever LCs" customers prefer, said Ken Miller, product marketing manager of proteomics for Thermo. The alliance with Waters is "one more driver for Thermo," he said.

"I certainly think it's going to have a positive effect on [sales of] the Acquity systems," he said. "I think this is going to make many customers who may be on the fence about UPLC recognize that a company that has HPLC within their offering, and that's Thermo, has put a vote of confidence for UPLC technology."

Waters introduced the Acquity UPLC system in August 2004. Since that time, the firm has been trying to convince users of its Alliance HPLC systems, not to mention competing instruments, to switch to the higher-end and more expensive Acquity system.

Though the firm does not provide sales figures for individual product lines, Doug Berthiaume, Waters' president and CEO, said during the firm's fourth-quarter conference call in January that sales of Acquity "more than doubled in the quarter in terms of underlying growth rate and order rate." (see BioCommerce Week 1/25/2006). He also said that sales of the Acquity system would fuel 2006 revenue growth.

Acquity Add-ons to Boost Sales?

Waters recently finished a difficult year in which it issued two warnings that quarterly revenue would not meet previous guidance, citing weakness in the pharmaceutical spending market. Berthiaume predicted that proprietary UPLC columns and "meaningful enhancements" to the Acquity system during the year will help boost 2006 sales.

Clearly, the alliance with Thermo is one of these "meaningful enhancements."

Specific terms of the alliance call for the firms to integrate the Acquity instrument with a range of Thermo mass spectrometers including the Finnigan TSQ Quantum, LTQ Linear Ion Trap, LTQ FT Hybrid Linear Trap/Fourier Transform ICR, and LTQ Orbitrap hybrid mass spectrometer.


"I think this is going to make many customers who may be on the fence about UPLC recognize that a company that has HPLC within their offering, and that's Thermo, has put a vote of confidence for UPLC technology."

Some researchers had already been using the technologies together, according to Cassis, but "the issue that they were dealing with was that the components that made up the UPLC/MS system had separate software controls. There was the inconvenience of having to use separate software packages to control what they perceive to be one instrument," he said.

Cassis said Waters released the control code for its Acquity instrument to Thermo, which is integrating the code in its own software package. But, he said the software isn't the only part of the integration.

"You have to make sure the instrument works both from a software point of view and from a fluidic and performance point of view," he said. "A key part of this collaboration was the time invested by Waters and Thermo to make sure the instrument works properly when these two devices are connected."

The alliance does not include any product cross-selling, Cassis said. For example, scientists who already have a Thermo mass spectrometer and want to buy a UPLC system would buy directly from Waters and vice versa. The intent isn't to sell each others' products, Cassis said. It's "to be able to allow a new level of performance for our combined set of customers."

He added, "There are people who are buying new instruments that include both UPLC and MS, but there are also people who already have a Thermo mass spectrometer installed in their laboratory or an Acquity UPLC in their laboratory. The opportunity is out there from a selling point of view to include both audiences: those who are buying new instruments and those who are augmenting existing hardware with new components."

Cassis said that a major benefit to both firms is the relatively small overlap in product offerings. "For instance, Waters doesn't have an ion trap offering," he explained. "So, it's not as if we're competing for customers who wish to buy an ion trap detector. Conversely, Thermo does not have a Q-TOF. So, if you have a customer who believes the Q-TOF technology is best for their application, then it's not a situation where Waters and Thermo are competing."

Sizing Up the Competition

Waters competes with several BCW Index firms, including Thermo, Agilent, PerkinElmer, and Applied Biosystems, in the estimated $2-billion liquid chromatography market, which includes pharmaceutical and protein research, forensics, and food safety. Industry participants have estimated the LC/MS market at roughly $1.3 billion.

In the year and a half since Waters launched the Acquity system, the company has enjoyed the first-mover advantage in offering a high-speed LC system. But Agilent launched its 1200 Series LC system and its 6000 Series LC/MS platforms earlier this year hoping to obtain its publicly stated goal of surpassing Waters as the top LC vendor on the market (see BioCommerce Week 1/25/2006).

Agilent believes that the flexibility and high resolution of the 1200 Series LC system, the successor to its 11-year-old 1100 Series liquid chromatography instrument, will enable it to take market share from Waters and other LC vendors that have yet to launch a high-speed instrument.

Agilent has not disclosed pricing for the system, but Christina Maehr, launch coordinator for the 1200 Series LC, said it was comparable in price to the predecessor 1100 system. There is a premium, however, for the rapid resolution module that customers can choose as part of the system, she noted.

The 6000 Series LC/MS platform includes five classes of instruments, according to Agilent, including the firm's first triple quadrupole and Q-TOF mass spectrometers, and improved versions of its single quad, ion trap, and time-of-flight mass spectrometers.

ABI and its mass-spec partner MDS Sciex last month launched their QSTAR Elite LC/MS/MS system, a Q-TOF mass spectrometer for protein and small molecule biomarker discovery. The partners also sell earlier-generation LC/MS systems.

PerkinElmer does not have an LC/MS offering, though it does sell a line of liquid chromatographs. The firm's proteomics and biomarker discovery business is centered primarily on its BioXpression biomarker platform, which incorporates a MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer and was launched last June.

— Edward Winnick ([email protected])

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