Looking to display its commitment to its bioanalytical tools business, Agilent Technologies plans to open two functional laboratories — which the company has dubbed "centers of excellence" — on both the East and West coasts by March 2007.
According to Agilent, the undisclosed investment in the two centers demonstrates an increasing focus on its life sciences and chemical analysis products, which the company is paying greater attention to after selling off its semiconductor business last year (see BAN 8/17/2005).
"It is an example of the investment Agilent is making overall in the bioanalytical measurement part of its business, which is now a much bigger part of the Agilent portfolio," Agilent spokesperson Stuart Matlow told BioArray News this week.
Sid Bhatt, Agilent's North American field applications manager, said the centers of excellence are functional demonstration labs that offer a "one-stop experience" for Agilent's entire life sciences and chemical analysis portfolio, including its microarray tools.
"This is a functional laboratory with bays that display and demonstrate our measurement tools. We've made it so that it looks like a showroom; at the same time it's functional," Bhatt told BioArray News last week.
"A microarray system is a significant investment, and people want to see and feel that system before they use it. It's difficult to do that at their site, [and] it's much easier for them to do it at our site."
"Traditionally, we have always had different demo laboratories, located in different offices across the US," Bhatt said. They are limited in space and are limited in what they can handle.
Changing from that model, Agilent will now concentrate its bioanalysis tools in two labs, one near its new headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., and the other near its East Coast office in Wilmington, Del. The Santa Clara Center of Excellence is expected to be fully operational as of August 1, while Agilent plans to open the East Coast COE in March 2007, Bhatt said.
The Santa Clara COE, which will open its doors to early-access visitors next month, is 5,000 square feet and is complemented by another 1,000 square feet of conference space. Bhatt said that the COE includes a special area for gene expression and genomics.
Chris Hopkins, a senior scientist at Agilent, told BioArray News last week that the genomics area of the Santa Clara COE gives visitors access to Agilent's high-throughput microarray scanner, analysis software, hybridization equipment, and microfluidics-based bioanalyzer system, which is used for quality control in microarray sample preparation.
According to Hopkins, the COE has several advantages over Agilent's current demonstration setup. "Customers can come in and see the system and actually get hands-on in the lab with the system," Hopkins said. "In addition, we have facilities for doing presentations so that people can get a first-hand look at the instruments and the products that we are selling and try them," he added.
Other advantages for COE visitors will be access to all of Agilent's bioanalytical tools within one space, as well as close proximity to most of its West Coast personnel.
Microarray customers will have access to a complete Agilent array system at the Santa Clara COE, as well as newer technologies the company is developing in the array area as they are released, Hopkins said.
"To be honest, a microarray system is a significant investment, and people want to see and feel that system before they use it. It's difficult to do that at their site, [and] it's much easier for them to do it at our site," Hopkins explained.
Hopkins said that Agilent is moving into four primary microarray applications — gene expression, array comparative genome hybridization, ChIP-on-chip, and genome-wide DNA methylation analysis — "pretty aggressively." He said that the company is in the "early stages" of launching a methylation chip now.
"We have a microarray that we have designed for CpG islands and we are working with some experts in the field of DNA methylation, and we are working with their assay and our microarray to work on development of this technology," Hopkins said. Matlow said that the company will provide more information on the methylation arrays in several weeks.
The Competition Reacts
While the use of the term "center of excellence" to describe a combined demonstration center and functional lab may be new in the array field, the concept is not.
According to Hrissi Samartzidou, the senior product and marketing manager of GE Healthcare's CodeLink bioarray business, GE has had similar centers on both coasts "for at least a couple of years."
"We have two application labs, or demonstration centers, where we take our customers and we show them not only our CodeLink product line but also GE Healthcare … products," Samartzidou told BioArray News last week.
Samartzidou said that GE's West Coast center is located in Sunnyvale, Calif., while its East Coast center is situated in Piscataway, NJ. She said that the centers had worked positively for GE in terms of its sales and marketing efforts.
"We have found them useful from the customer support standpoint, and obviously from the sales standpoint," Samartzidou said. "We also use them to run proof-of-principle experiments there for customers. From that angle, they have been very useful for CodeLink."
Though such demonstration centers may make sense for larger companies like GE Healthcare and Agilent Technologies that offer a variety of bioanalytical tools, smaller array companies may not see the same benefits from that strategy. NimbleGen Systems, for example, has "no plans to open a demo lab at this time," NimbleGen spokesperson Joleen Rau told BioArray News this week.
"We don't see a need for such a facility as the barriers to trying our technology are minimal," Rau said. First-time NimbleGen customers can send samples to its service lab for pilot projects with no capital expenditure, and "there are a very large and growing number of peer-reviewed publications using our platform that researchers can consult," she added.
Additionally, NimbleGen does not focus on selling array hardware, and Rau said that fact negated the need for NimbleGen to establish a demo lab.
"Microarrays are transportable — unlike a lot of instruments, which are what really precipitated the need for demo labs," Rau said.
Rau said that the company is using its resources to develop new platforms and new applications. Some of NimbleGen's current projects include developing whole-genome splice variant arrays, whole-genome methylation arrays, as well as array-based techniques to analyze clinical samples from paraffin-embedded, formalin-fixed tissues.
Still, NimbleGen does have some bases for showing off its technology. Dan Clutter, NimbleGen's vice president of sales, said that the company has "an operating lab" at its headquarters in Madison, Wis., where NimbleGen "hosts customers to train them or actually works on collaborations together."
Affymetrix could not be reached for comment.
— Justin Petrone ([email protected])