At A Glance:
Name: Erik Walldén,
Title: President and CEO, Biacore International
Prior to joining Biacore International in 2004, Walldén served as President and CEO of Pyrosequencing for six years. Walldén also held managerial and executive positions within marketing and business development at PerSeptive Biosystems, now part of Applied Biosystems, Pharmacia Biosensor, now Biacore International, and Pharmacia Biotech, now part of Amersham Biosciences.
Walldén studied analytical chemistry and biochemistry at Uppsala University in Sweden.
At A Glance:
Name: Stefan Löfås
Title: Vice President, Chief Scientific Officer, Biacore International
Löfås has held his current positions at Biacore since 2000, and has been with the company since its earliest days when he served as a research chemist. Löfås received a PhD in Organic Chemistry from Uppsala University in Sweden in 1985.
Uppsala, Sweden — "2004 was a year of change." So opens the statement of Biacore's president Erik Walldén in the company's annual report. After nearly a decade of increasing growth and revenues, Walldén notes, the company suddenly found its growth stagnating — American sales dropped 18.6 percent, from SEK 228.5 million ($29.7 million) in 2003 to SEK $186 million in 2004, for example — and the company decided to de-list itself from the Nasdaq in May 2004.
Taking action in July 2004, Biacore announced a strategic business review that culminated in the refocusing of its sales and marketing efforts, cuts in R&D spending, the departure of CEO Ulf Jönsson, and the appointment of Walldén.
At the same time Biacore rolled out an upgraded version of its automated Biacore 3000 mass spectrometry tool, the Biacore T100, and announced the purchase of the FlexChip System from US-based HTS, which the company believes will position it as a "go-to" force for researchers and industry R&D shops looking to study protein-protein interactions.
In addition, the firm topped off its year of change by moving its headquarters from Neuchatel, Switzerland, back to Uppsala, Sweden — where it was founded — in June.
To get a better picture of just where Biacore is headed one year since Walldén took the helm of the firm, BioArray News spoke with the CEO and president, as well as Stefan Löfås, Biacore's chief scientific officer and vice president at their office here.
How long have you been operating as a company, and why was 2004 in particular a challenging year for Biacore?
EW: Biacore has been around since the mid 1980s actually, as a research organization and company, and it launched its first-generation products in late 1990. We've been commercially around for 15 years. The company became profitable in at least 1994. It became public in 1996 and has been profitable and growing very nicely, so it has been a little bit like a success story.
But in 2002, things started to go south of the line. Things started to decline and continued to decline, but the company continued to invest a lot in R&D and infrastructure, and at some point these two curves crossed, and that happened to be in 2004. That's not good. Being small and dependent on ourselves we decided to take some actions.
I understand there was some kind of reorganization strategy employed at the end of the year last year.
EW: Exactly, so in order to recover from the situation we demanded a restructuring of the company, so we reorganized, downsized, and aligned the business better, and so forth. We did that during the fall last year and it came through quite nicely, I would say, because we could maintain the timing and the quality of the products we launched. We launched the T100 this year, the A100, the array product, we brought out in the middle of the restructuring.
Why decide to roll out the products while you were restructuring the company?
EW: Well, we have a market to serve.
In your annual report you said that part of your decision to restructure had to do with the performance of your sales and marketing team, particularly in the US market. Can you elaborate on what happened to those teams?
EW: We had the condition of being extremely technical and scientific in our marketing teams, and that was a good thing, and was very good in our early years when we established the company. But after many years of all the success, you had to do more individual promotion and so on, so the change in the US — and we've done it globally as well as here centrally — is to be more commercially focused.
And that means that we are investing more in our sales people, in experience and understanding of the sales process and sales organization, marketing messages and so forth; commercially. It doesn't mean that we've given up on the science and technology — we are adding a dimension.
What does that mean for your customers? Are they interacting with Biacore differently?
EW: For the customers and the market, they are probably finding that we are clearer in our message. They still get the quality of our products and level of support, and so I don't think that they'll notice much difference, but we will be clearer in our message.
You said you have been selling products for 15 years. What are your flagship products at the moment?
EW: It is interesting. We have a product called Biacore3000. It is an excellent product that came out about seven years ago, and it's our core product. It has a flexibility that is really attractive to researchers, a level of automation that is attractive to substantial projects; it has [a level of] support which is attractive to the drug-discovery environment. So it is really our core product, but in February we launched the new generation of this product, which is called the Biacore T100. And the difference is there is a little bit better capability, but it is also a very modern product, the user interface is more state of the art, and the software is more in tune with the standards of the day.
Where does the FlexChip System fit into your commercial strategy?
EW: It fits in, we believe, in that first of all it's a planar array and it's a neat exploratory or experimental platform. We believe that we will be able to connect better with the more explorative and academic research because our products have been refined over the years to be used in more downstream projects, so it helps us to connect with upstream aspects. Maybe you would like to add something here, Stefan?
SL: If you look at what we have, our own developed products, the Biacore 3000, T100, where you can measure four interactions at the same time, four different spots that you functionalize or immobilize within the instrument. That has been extended to the A100 platform, which is rolling out as we speak. [The number] is extending out to 20 measuring spots at the same time. And that's done the same way as the other internally developed instruments.
The FlexChip system, on the other hand, can measure up to 400 different interactions. So it is a magnitude higher in terms of interactions. The difference is that you spot the interacting molecules onto the chip outside of the instrument using traditional spotting techniques used for DNA applications. And then you dissemble the chip, put it into the instrument in a flow-through chamber flowing with your analytes, and this is giving the researcher the platform to create their own types of experiments, maybe in a more flexible way than you do the other types of experiments.
What led you to invest in purchasing the system?
SL: We saw that it fit into our available portfolio here. We saw a lot of interest — people coming from the DNA array space who want to do these types of two-dimensional array experiments. We've had over the years a lot of interest and requests for [making that type of instrument] available and we saw that this could fit that and was potentially a very nice opportunity for us to add to our portfolio.
In the conference call in March you alluded to the fact that there would be components added to the system or the system would experience some kind of upgrade, although it is available now in its current state. Would you care to elaborate on how it might be upgraded?
EW: So the system has the history of HTS, which is the company that developed the product with the support of Applied Biosystems, although ABI withdrew from this. We, of course, kept an eye on this product all along, and thought it was a good product. It needed to be positioned correctly, in the market, but provided that you position it correctly it's a good product with potential. So when it came back to HTS, HTS as a small company had to survive by selling the product themselves without a sales force. We followed this and saw that they were actually selling it. So people were paying money for this product and it was obvious that they worked in the customer's hands, so we got interested and took over the product in March and have been selling it throughout our organization.
We stepped up the training, and now we view the flagship as a vehicle product, so that means that our R&D, our intellectual property, and our knowhow about the customers, markets, technology, product development, logistics and all that [can be integrated], so we will be adding things to this product line.
Do you anticipate when you might add something to the existing system?
EW: We don't really give out projections of when we do some things, but I think our surface chemistry is something we feel could enhance the capabilities significantly.
SL: Basically HTS did not have any kind of real surface chemistry compared to what we have for our other products, so there are limitations on how you can do the attachment of your ligand to this surface, and this of course obvious — to add that kind of component to the system. We already have a lot of know how and experience so we can streamline this for only a few dollars.
As Erik said, we don't project when this will happen.
How big is the market for this system, and how much do you expect that market to grow over the next few years?
EW: I am not sure I can say how big the market it is, but this definitely strengthens our position in the market. Some people think that the market for [protein-protein interactions] may be worth $500 million or so and Biacore may have 10 or 15 percent of that. This product allows us to grow our market share.
You recently relocated your headquarters from Switzerland back to Sweden, but you are a Swedish company. How did this come about?
EW: We moved the headquarters and some logistics and manufacturing to Switzerland in 2001 for pure corporate tax reasons. This is a public company, we are making money, and we had to do our best for our shareholders. But the markets didn't really turn out as some anticipated, and all the market dynamics have changed since we moved.
And in light that we suffered great difficulties last year we decided to close that down last year. Of course it was an occupational hazard I think; a small company trying to run the main operations here in Sweden from Switzerland.
SL: You have to remember that in 2000 the climate and the projections were totally different from what it turned out to be. Everyone thought that things would go sky-high here, and I think the decision was taken then and we, and particularly other companies, have seen that it hasn't taken off in the way that they said it would.
Do you have faith in the current projections? Are they more realistic?
EW: Yes, absolutely. I think the projections are more in balance with today's market dynamics and funding environment. Today people talk more in the 10 percent levels when they talk about growth. In 2000, 2001 when you talked about genomics it was more like 20 percent, 25 percent, 30 percent.
So far you have mentioned the FlexChip's usefulness for academic researchers, but in your annual report you mention that Biacore is trying to sell to US pharmaceutical companies. Who are the customers that will enable you to continue to grow as a company?
EW: So, I think in a rough way we can divide our target customers into two groups — academic researchers and industrial research and development. Historically the company was focused on academic researchers, but in 2000 we started to diversify [our] product offering for more downstream drug discovery environments — packages for validation and things like that. Today if you took a snapshot of the company you would find that approximately 60 percent of the company's customers are academic researchers at large institutes, big institutes, et cetera. The other 30 to 35 percent is in downstream drug discovery and drug development, and then we have 5 percent food analysis.
Are you satisfied with how the market for your products has developed in Sweden and in Northern Europe, and is it different in your own backyard than it is in Geneva or in the US?
EW: My main impression is that the growth in the Nordic countries and Sweden is strong, but we are small, so that is one of the challenges for a small biotech company in this country. Our home market is actually [abroad], and in the US and continental Europe and Japan we have to operate as well as companies there.
We can learn and have good connections with universities here, but it is not the market. And that is a bit of a disadvantage to some of our US competitors who may have their home market across the street.