Agilent Technologies this week expanded its footing in Southeast Asia by opening a training center in Shanghai with the intent to increase the technical capabilities of the company's customer support teams as it works to solidify a place in the Chinese life sciences market.
The training center is not currently focused on genomics, "but [that] will be an area of focus in the future," Sui-Ching Low, a spokesperson for Agilent's Chinese life sciences division, told BioArray News. Low added that trainers will be pulled from the Chinese customer engineer group, as well as Agilent's US and European divisions.
The main goal of the center, according to Low, is to "raise the technical capability of our Chinese and Asian customer support teams to provide fast, effective customer support to keep our customers highly productive."
In addition, the firm will be providing training for customers themselves. Low said that 30 customers have attended training sessions over the past two weeks.
"Before [the center was opened] we needed to send our customer engineers to the US and Europe for training," Low explained. "Now, with the opening of the center here, we can train them in Asia. We can [also] train in Chinese, decrease travel time, and focus on issues [specific to] China and Asia."
Low said Agilent has spent $700,000 on its new Shanghai Training Center, which is located adjacent to the manufacturing and R&D centers the company set up in that city three years ago.
Land of Opportunity?
As Agilent moves to shore up its Chinese operation from its Asian headquarters in Shanghai, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company is also trying to stake a claim in the Chinese market through government and academic cooperation.
One government-sponsored project Agilent is involved in is the Human Liver Proteome Project, an effort organized through the Human Proteome Organization and led by Chinese researchers.
Low said that the company's mass spectrometry and microarray technologies were being used by researchers to identify proteins associated with normal and disease states for liver.
Low also said that the company is taking advantages of growing opportunities in the clinical trial market "as more clinical trials are conducted in China."
The move to establish a training center in Shanghai demonstrates that Agilent sees China as an important emerging market, but it also comes less than a month after two of its main competitors in the array market laid claims in the region.
In late April, CapitalBio, a Beijing-based chip vendor that had started testing the waters of the US market in March with the launch of the competitively priced LuxScan 10K microarray scanner, announced it had entered into a marketing and licensing agreement with Affymetrix, and that it would sell a newer version of the scanner that could read Affy chips.
CapitalBio, widely regarded as the leading chip vendor in China, also became Affy's second Chinese distributor with the deal, and CapitalBio will now use the resources it has built up to sell Affy technology to Chinese customers. The two also didn't exclude the possibility that Affy might shift some of its manufacturing to China.
In a statement released last month, Affy hinted that the company may also move some of its production to China in the future to "take advantage of CapitalBio's engineering and manufacturing capabilities."
"Other collaborations under discussion include manufacturing certain products in China," said Affymetrix.
Other rivals of Agilent's array platform that are expanding their efforts in China include Applied Biosystems and Illumina. According to Jack Zhai, the manager of expression arrays at ABI, his company has a 60-person sales force in China. While he said that diagnostics are probably the largest market segment in the Chinese microarray space, Zhai said that most companies are focusing on the research markets there.
"I still think with current platforms -- Affy platforms, Agilent, ABI, whatever -- they are still for the research segment, but not the diagnostic at all," he said (see Q&A).
Zhai also said that while diagnostics may be popular, China's real strength for biotech companies lies in its ability to provide cheap products and labor for biotech companies.
In this way, Agilent's efforts to sell to researchers involved in clinical trials may be a strategy that competitors could begin to imitate.
"Clinical trials are the kind of business you can set up in China" because it is labor intensive, he said.
Zhai predicted that once foreign biotech companies put down more roots in China, they will likely be for manufacturing and clinical trials.
-- Justin Petrone ([email protected])