BELLEVUE, Wash. — Applied Precision and Cellomics have reached an exclusive OEM agreement in which Cellomics will integrate an image-analysis toolkit with Applied Precision's automated cellular imaging system for sale by both companies into the secondary screening, assay development, and academic markets, Applied Precision representatives said at IBC's Assays and Cellular Targets conference, held here last week.
The agreement may help Applied Precision gain a bigger foothold in the area of high-content analysis — a market segment it has only relatively recently begun to explore — by equipping its instrument with a proven image-analysis package and providing the company with the marketing muscle of Cellomics' parent company Fisher Biosciences.
On the flip side, the deal provides Fisher Biosciences' newly acquired Cellomics business (see CBA News, 8/8/2005 and 9/12/2005) with what Applied Precision termed a more affordable "entry-level" high-content scanner, which may help Fisher expand the high-content screening market to smaller drug-discovery firms and academic centers, while drumming up sales for its higher-end high-content screening instruments.
Under the terms of the agreement, which has yet to be publicly announced, Applied Precision will manufacture its CellWorx cellular imaging platform for Cellomics, which in turn will equip it with an instrument-specific image-analysis toolkit based on the software found in Cellomics' ArrayScan and KineticScan HCS readers.
"I think they see the CellWorx as an entry-level type system, suitable for people who want to get into high-content analysis, but really can't afford the $300,000-and-up systems."
Cellomics will then sell the product to the pharmaceutical markets in North America, Europe, and all areas in Asia outside of Singapore and Taiwan, Joe Victor, Applied Precision's senior vice president of life sciences, told CBA News.
In addition, Applied Precision will become the exclusive distributor of the combined product to academic researchers through its own sales channels in North America, Singapore, and Taiwan.
In both cases, Cellomics' intellectual property covering specific high-content screening methods will be included in the package.
Applied Precision plans to begin shipping the integrated system near the end of this quarter, though it has declined to identify any of its customers or potential leads. As previously mentioned, the company has had several beta-testers for the instrument sans dedicated software over the last year, and Victor said that "we are just about ready to deploy the software out to our pre-production sites, and to have them test that with our system." He added that Cellomics has been conducting a lot of work with the combined platform over the past few months and has "served as a beta-tester of sorts."
From Applied Precision's perspective, the deal will finally integrate a dedicated image-analysis package with the company's CellWorx platform, which it has been beta-testing with early-access partners since early 2004. The company, which is more well-known for its instrumentation chops, realized it needed an empowering image-analysis package to complement the scanner.
"Applied Precision identified a need for analysis software almost a year ago," Victor said. "We have been looking for a good partner since that time … and Cellomics-Fisher came to the top of our list rather quickly. They had been in the field the longest, had really the most robust software package, and were willing to work with us to come up with an entry-level toolkit-type package that would be suitable for a product like CellWorx."
Details about specific bioapplications for CellWorx are still under wraps, as the agreement was only completed last week. However, Victor said the product is "specifically a toolkit type of software, so it's designed for not just large enterprise-wide systems — but [also] for academic research, something more flexible.
"They took their existing intellectual property and software and created this package that has a very nice suite of analysis applications on it, and it works quite well integrated with CellWorx," he added.
For Cellomics and Fisher, the agreement may allow the company to gain access to customers in high-content screening that it previously couldn't because of the relatively high cost of its platforms, which range from $250,000 to $500,000. Applied Precision's CellWorx, on the other hand, will retail for about $140,000.
"I think they see the CellWorx as an entry-level type system, suitable for people who want to get into high-content analysis, but really can't afford the $300,000-and-up systems," Victor said. "They see this as a way to get their footprint in that entry-level system, and then as people want to move up into something like the KineticScan and the [ArrayScan], which has incubation, and other options, that gives somebody a path to go down."
As an example, in a May 2004 interview with CBA News, Timothy Mitchison, professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School and co-director of Harvard's Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology, said "the major company in the field until recently was Cellomics, and the only reason we never went with them is that their instruments are really out of our price range.
"I'm always looking for instruments that can be acquired for under $200,000 — that's sort of my upper limit," Mitchison said. "People make these million-dollar instruments, and I don't know who they're going to sell them to — frankly, not us academics." (See CBA News, 5/25/2004)
Calls to Cellomics were not returned in time for this publication.
Molecular Devices has recognized this trend as well. At the Marcus Evans HCS show in London in June, the company rolled out ImageXpress Micro, the benchtop version of its much pricier ImageXpress automated microscopy platform. Molecular Devices told CBA News at the time that ImageXpress would sell for a base price of about £100,000 ($178,000) (see CBA News, 6/20/2005).
Part of the reason for the expense of instruments like the ArrayScan, KineticScan, and ImageXpress is that they are targeted a bit more toward the industrial drug-discovery market. As such, these instruments also have different performance standards than something like CellWorx.
According to Victor, the instruments' resolutions are comparable, although the Cellomics platforms may have more flexibility with multiple objectives … and some of the higher-end features [such as] the whole kinetic-type of workflow, which we don't offer."
In addition, he said, the Cellomics instruments offer additional "bells and whistles" such as incubation and full automation, which results in a higher level of throughput.
"The other instruments [from Cellomics] are essentially flexible microscopes in a box, and have lots of things they can do," Victor said. "The performance is good — but it's kind of an expensive system to offer it that way.
"Ours is an integrated system — we have no microscope inside, our own integrated optical train, and an integrated scanning engine," he added. "With that, there is some flexibility that you lose, like multiple objectives, but with our range of resolutions, we think we have a good compromise, and we get very good optical performance."
(For more on CellWorx's specs, see CBA News, 9/21/2004).
Applied Precision may also be able to reap some additional benefits from the deal besides adding image-analysis capabilities to its platform. Cellomics parent Fisher Bioscience has a massive marketing presence, as well as several other divisions that integrate well with cellular analysis, such as RNAi, cell culture, and protein science.
"We think that the key value add[ed] is getting the analysis software into our system, but definitely a strategic benefit from this is the Fisher relationship, clearly for Cellomics and somewhat for the CellWorx product, to have Fisher's marketing and sales channel muscle providing leads," Victor said. "Most of those leads will probably still be toward Cellomics rather than us, but there will be some benefit."
Applied Precision has not yet discussed any other possible collaborations within the Fisher Biosciences family, but it is not ruling out the possibility.
"I think we're open to talking with Fisher and Cellomics with additional arrangements going forward, but we haven't had any discussions about that to date," Victor said. "Of course, as partners, anything we can do to be successful together, we're willing to talk about with them. So we're obviously excited about the opportunity to work with Fisher — they obviously have a large footprint in many different areas."
Furthermore, the possibility may exist for Applied Precision to extend the relationship with Cellomics beyond image analysis and into high-content informatics, where Cellomics is a market leader, though there have been no discussion to date about that either.
— Ben Butkus ([email protected])