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Cellomics-Evotec Deal Could Be Harbinger Of Fisher Bid to Buy Evotec Tech Unit

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On the surface, the co-development and co-marketing agreement signed this week between Evotec Technologies and Fisher Biosciences subsidiary Cellomics was a bid by both companies to expand their HCS customer bases.

However, according to some industry insiders, the deal may be the first step in an eventual acquisition of Evotec Technologies' assets by Fisher.

The initial terms of the agreement between Cellomics and Evotec call for Cellomics to create an interface between the Evotec Opera confocal HCS reader and Cellomics' informatics software using the Cellomics HCS Gateway product. In addition, the companies will validate many of Cellomics' assay kits on the Opera.

The agreement will undoubtedly help Cellomics and Fisher gain entry into the high-throughput cell-based assay market, but Fisher may want more, and Evotec Tech seems ripe for the picking.

"Evotec Technologies has been on the block for a while," said one official from a competing vendor, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize possible future relations between his company and Evotec or Cellomics. "Certainly if there was a company out there that wanted to get into the high-speed confocal HCS market without developing its own instrument, Evotec Tech would be an attractive choice."

When asked why he thought that Evotec Tech was for sale, this official said: "I've been in the industry for 20 years, and you recognize these things."

In addition, Evotec OAI, Evotec Technologies' parent company, last year stated that the Tech division is "no longer core" to the company (see CBA News, 3/29/2005) after several quarters of slumping revenues. Evotec OAI, in the meantime, remains primarily a drug-discovery services company, and has signed or renewed screening agreements with several large pharmas over the last year.

Evotec is still unwilling to discuss the possible divestiture of its Tech subsidiary, but has stated that revenues for the unit are back on track following the recent release of a new version of the Opera system. In addition, Evotec Tech recently brought additional technology on board with its acquisition of the µHTS business from Cellomics partner Zeiss.

Cellomics is equally mum about the possibility of acquiring Evotec Tech.

"Right now we're happy to be collaborating with Evotec, and we're happy to have a high-end solution to refer people to, where rather than being a competitive environment, it's a collaborative environment," Judy Masucci, director of marketing at Cellomics, said in an interview. "Any future directions that Fisher might take, we're not at liberty to comment on." A Fisher spokesperson who participated in the interview didn't elaborate.

Fisher certainly hasn't been shy on the acquisition front lately, however, and in particular has rapidly been assembling the pieces it needs to compete in the HCS space. Besides its August 2005 acquisition of Cellomics, the company purchased RNAi reagent provider Dharmacon in 2004; and in January, it acquired "a large stake" in German reagent shop Dyomics, a move expected to boost its fluorescent label reagent play (see CBA News, 1/13/2006).

What Fisher and Cellomics don't have, however, is a high-speed confocal HCS reader to sell to the growing number of pharmaceutical scientists who want to screen large numbers of compounds against live cells in a relatively short time. Those scientists essentially now have to choose between Molecular Devices, GE Healthcare, or Evotec; or, if they wanted to use a laser-based scanning cytometer that doesn't produce true images, TTP Labtech or CompuCyte.

"Evotec has a great high-speed confocal instrument, but they haven't built that platform out very much," said a scientist and Evotec Opera user at a drug-discovery company, who wished to remain anonymous because of his company's relationship with Evotec. "They haven't done any of the informatics, data mining, and data storage themselves, but instead have collaborated with other companies to fill this need."

As an example, Evotec penned an agreement in 2003 with German software firm Definiens for image analysis, and with Swiss informatics company Genedata for informatics and data mining capabilities (see CBA News, 9/19/2005).

But Cellomics and Fisher essentially have all of those capabilities in house, and in fact, many in the industry consider Cellomics' image-analysis and informatics offerings to be one of its strongest points. Combine that with Fisher's strong play in reagents for labeling and RNAi, and a deal begins to make more sense.

But for now, Cellomics and Evotec remain separate businesses. This means that unlike Molecular Devices or GE Healthcare, Cellomics still doesn't actually have a high-end HCS reader to sell directly to its customers. At the most, its relationship with Evotec may stimulate sales of Cellomics' informatics software to Opera customers, and may provide leads to researchers who currently use an Opera, but would like a lower-end lamp-based HCS reader for assay development and secondary screening.

However, validating Cellomics' assay kits on Opera and demonstrating that Cellomics' informatics software works well with Opera may be just as important.

"If Fisher were interested in buying Evotec Tech, then this partnership would certainly seem like a logical step, so that the companies could essentially have customers test new products out and provide feedback about what does and what does not work," the scientist said.

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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