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Amersham Bioscience s Sam Raha on CodeLink Bioarray Business

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At A Glance

  • Samraat Raha, known as Sam Raha, vice president of CodeLink.
  • Previously: Chief business officer, EraGen (Madison, Wisc.); vice president, discovery services and reagents, Incyte Genomics.

Sam Raha, 31, has been vice president of Amersham Biosciences’ CodeLink microarray product line for three months.

Raha, who holds a BA in molecular and cell biology from the University of California, Berkeley, was hired away from EraGen of Madison, Wis., where he had been chief business officer since August. Previously, Raha was vice president of discovery services and bioreagents for Incyte Genomics, where he had worked since 1994.

He now works out of CodeLink’s new office and clean-room manufacturing facility in Chandler, Ariz., where the 90 employees, including 40 PhD-level scientists, moved in March from the microarray unit’s former home in the Motorola manufacturing facility in Tempe, Ariz. Raha reports to Trevor Hawkins, senior vice president of genomics, for Amersham Biosciences, who is under Andrew Carr, the president of Amersham Biosciences.

Last week, as the company introduced the CodeLink UniSet Human 20K I Bioarray, a 19,000-human gene slide, and the first product created exclusively by the team since the business was acquired by Amersham for $20 million in July, BioArray News spoke with Raha to learn about how Amersham has integrated CodeLink and what lies ahead for the fledgling business as it prepares to go toe-to-toe with the other A’s of microarrays — Affymetrix and Agilent.

You have been around microarrays for a while, almost long enough to qualify as a pioneer. What do you see as your strengths as you take this position?

I have lived and breathed microarrays for several years now; it’s something that is near and dear to my heart. I appreciate the technology, it gets me excited. It doesn’t have to be our technology, it’s any technology out there that is microarray-related. So, beyond understanding how microarrays have developed since commercial microarrays were developed almost a decade ago, and since Affymetrix became the first successful company, I have strong ties from Synteni, which predates the success that Affymetrix had. Beyond that, what I bring is a good general understanding of the life sciences, and a lot of connections within the general pharmaceutical and biotech community as well as the academics space with the NIH. Also, a keen drive of how to really run [a] business. More than just science, this is about putting science together with good business sense, and good marketing and all of that. Regardless of how good it is, the science won’t sell itself. You have to make sure that as an organization, as a company, you give customers compelling reasons to, first of all, take notice, and then to see how you are really differentiated.

How does CodeLink fit in with Amersham?

Amersham, over the last year or so, has really been thinking about how it will stay at the forefront of life sciences, and looking at new and innovative technologies, particularly ones that would really nicely tie-in with, and support, the corporate vision of Amersham PLC, which is enabling molecular and personalized medicine. CodeLink is one of the technologies that tie-in to the life sciences marketplace, and is on the road to personalized medicine as a diagnostic platform.

The CodeLink acquisition was something that was not done in a silo, it was done with a lot of input from Amersham PLC, including [Amersham] Biosciences and [Amersham] Health. Because the corporation has a keen and continued interested in CodeLink, Trevor [Hawkins] and the other execs and the board are aware and thinking about how, other than giving it lip service, to bring together all of these different pieces.

I would characterize CodeLink as a $20 million business, the price paid in the acquisition from Motorola, because this is the only real metric I have to measure it, unless you can give me some more color...

I’m going to step away from giving a specific number. We are a little sensitive of how to characterize that. We are trying to make it a bigger piece of revenue but it is still just a small piece, to be perfectly honest. We have some very nice, big prospective customers that we haven’t announced yet but [with whom] we are in the final stages of closing. We have over 20 important commercial customers, and well over 200 to 300 customers that are in academia. I’m characterizing a customer as someone who buys on an on-going basis.

Is making microarrays a 60-percent margin endeavor?

I’m not sure where the margins are going to be. I think we can make a meaningful business, and one where [margins] are not quite that high because we can tie [it] in with the rest of the things we can do, and gain advantages and benefits.

Here is where we have a distinct advantage, or differentiation from Affymetrix and Agilent. For Amersham, the gene expression space, or the slowly growing genetic variation space, is a space we have been in for a long time. Our goal is not just to be successful here, but also to tie this [business] together with our expertise in diagnostics, and enter that market. Amersham Health is the world’s leading in vivo diagnostics company in terms of market presence, with clinicians, clinics and hospitals, health professionals and revenues as well. We believe [in the strategy of] having the infrastructures and relationships with all the major institutions you want to have and putting that together with what we believe is the best technology for detecting and differentiating gene expression changes, and in particular, between not just high- and medium-expressed genes, but genes that are low expressers, or low-abundance genes. We know that any time you do a head-to-head between us and the other two platforms, you will see that. And, all of our prospective and existing customers have seen that. We think we can translate that together with the other advantages and capabilities we have at Amersham, to make a successful business.

CodeLink recently introduced what I would say is the first product that is all Amersham.

This is the first one where the Amersham scientists, the development team, have determined the format, spent time with the customers to understand what they are looking for, and really deliver from the marketing side as well. What was released we call our human 20K, which is roughly 20,000 human genes on one Bioarray so you can assay all of them in one experiment. There are exactly 19,195 unique human genes on there. So it’s not [that] we have 20,000 genes and the redundancy collapses, [and] brings it down to 10,000. There really are 19,000 unique genes.

What do you see in terms of custom arrays?

Custom arrays are an absolute must, not only [for] lower-throughput customers who do hundreds of arrays [but] the higher-throughput customers that use thousands. For both of those segments, custom arrays have varying importance. A custom array, we recognize at Amersham, can be anything from rearranging existing content that we have or the customer has, or creating an array to represent a genome, a species, certain genes of a species that don’t exist, at various densities, from the low end to hundreds to 20,000 to 40,000 on a particular array. We have a plan in place where, by the middle of the year, we are going to have a very robust system where we are going to be able to meet all of those different custom formats. We are already [able] to address a lot of custom needs. I think that [we need] to be very supportive and deliver exactly what a customer wants. Especially, completely brand new things that a customer wants to work on. Done at the right volumes, there is a market for that too.

I don’t think that our biggest differentiator from Affymetrix or Agilent is going to be our custom offering. On the other hand, it will be a differentiator. Today, we can do custom arrays, but what will happen by mid-year, [is that] we will implement new technologies that will significantly impact the turnaround times from when a customer comes to us with an idea, to deliver the actual microarrays at any decent number that they would like. The technologies and processes that we are implementing will drive down our internal costs and we will pass that along to the customers. I think the ultimate cost to the customer is still going to be, as with the general industry, more than for catalog arrays. Right now, it’s two to four times [the price of a catalog array] for a custom array. I think it will come down to 1.5 to 2 times, at most.

What is missing in microarray technology?

This is going to be a market that is not just served by one company, but one that is going to be served by multiple companies — how many, and who, will be determined in the long run — but I think one of the things that we need to drive towards, one way or another, and [have] coordinated through a central body like the FDA or other regulatory body, or hopefully, by working together, is: How do we standardize across our arrays so that customers, researchers, and regulatory bodies can make sense of it and go between data sets when it is important. That’s an important, overarching issue that is coming to a head because it still is a very new industry. Regulatory bodies and other organizations are realizing that to have multiple validating platforms is to the advantage of the overall system

How many product announcements this year?

We have spent a lot of time with our existing and, equally important, prospective customers, finding out exactly what would not be just a cool technology [but] what would move them forward. We hope to have new innovations—at least three to four more in this calendar year, from new bioarrays, to new ways of automating, to leaps forward in how we do custom arrays.

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