Seven months after Beckman Coulter pulled out of the high-content screening business by unceremoniously dropping its image cytometer product line, anxious users who invested in the platform can breathe at least a temporary sigh of relief that they will continue to receive tech support.
This week, Fisher Biosciences' Cellomics unit announced that it had reached an agreement with Beckman Coulter to provide maintenance and service support to customers of Beckman's IC 100. The agreement, which is indefinite, also includes the instrument's predecessor, the EIDAQ 100 High-Throughput Microscopy System.
As it stands, the deal provides Fisher and Cellomics access to at least a dozen HCS customers, which translates into revenues from service contracts and possibly from the sales of complementary HCS reagents.
In addition, though Cellomics has no plans to license, update, or develop new applications for the IC 100 technology, the deal may enable it to win new customers looking to either supplement or replace their IC 100 with a Cellomics HCS platform.
"This arrangement allows us to add more customers to our installed base [and] allows us access to this group of customers for sales of reagents and service contracts."
"This arrangement allows us to add more customers to our installed base," Judy Masucci, Cellomics' director of marketing, wrote in an e-mail to CBA News this week. "This allows us access to this group of customers for sales of reagents and service contracts.
"In addition, most of these customers are in the academic market, so this will give us better visibility into the needs of customers in this market segment," she added. "We hope to translate these needs into future product developments which hopefully all of these customers, as well as the full Cellomics customer base, will be able to benefit from. We plan to work with these customers as their needs evolve and our platform evolves."
In late 2003, Beckman acquired the high-throughput microscope technology then called the EIDAQ 100 along with San Diego-area startup Q3DM. Beckman quickly transformed the instrument into the "microscope-in-a-box" format and began marketing it to the HCS community.
In 2005, however, Beckman re-shifted its focus on its traditional flow cytometry and other businesses, and decided to discontinue various product lines, including its HCS system.
Following the announcement, some users of the instrument felt as though they had been left in the lurch. Other customers, including Mike Mancini of the Baylor College of Medicine and Gulf Coast Consortium NIH screening center, and David Zacharias of the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience and College of Medicine at the University of Florida, remained cautiously optimistic that they would soon have permanent tech support for the instrument outside of the few individuals Beckman left in place during the transition (see CBA News, 2/17/2006).
"There was a group of customers out there that had invested their time, money, and expertise when they acquired these systems, and it's critically important to us to not just leave them up in the air," Karen Bezold, director of research cytometry for Beckman Coulter, told CBA News this week.
"Working with Cellomics with their direction and focus seemed like a natural partnership," Bezold added. "They clearly have a strong vision for imaging, and with their capability and expertise, felt very comfortable, as did we, with them picking up the support and continuing with those customers."
Mancini this week told CBA News that rumors had been circulating for some time that Cellomics would pick up the contract, and that users will be happy to continue planning projects around the IC 100 knowing that they will receive adequate tech support.
"It's a short-term solution, [for us] at least, in keeping any minor problems from becoming a disaster," Mancini said. "My hope is that they know the machine enough to be helpful. My guess is that as long as they keep some of the key Beckman people involved, it will be fine. Beckman has been fantastic on many of the little things in the interim."
"It's a short-term solution, [for us] at least, in keeping any minor problems from becoming a disaster."
Beckman's Bezold told CBA News that Beckman will continue to be involved in servicing the instrument for several months before it fully hands the reins over to Cellomics.
"There is very definitely an overlap and transition period," she said. "We're providing training for Cellomics' organization; making sure there is an adequate amount of spare parts available, if any are needed; and providing the documentation and things like that to really do this job well and do it thoroughly."
Cellomics may be able to benefit financially from the service deal in several ways. First and foremost, it will reap direct service contract revenues from IC 100 customers.
According to one academic HCS user, who wished to remain anonymous due to his relationships with several vendors, service contracts for instruments such as the IC 100 or Cellomics' ArrayScan or KineticScan tend to cost approximately 10 percent of the instrument cost per year. Most HCS readers of this kind cost between $200,000 and $400,000, or anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 per year per user in service revenue.
There are estimated to be approximately a dozen IC 100 users, according to various Beckman officials and parties familiar with the instrument platform. Using these estimates, that translates to anywhere from $240,000 to $480,000 in service revenues per year.
In addition, Cellomics and parent Fisher may be able to reap an even greater financial reward in the form of reagent revenues particularly siRNA reagents from Fisher's Dharmacon unit.
The Beckman deal may create an even bigger potential financial opportunity for Cellomics: Though the company said it has no current plans to license, update, or develop new applications for the IC 100 technology, there's no reason it can't win new customers looking to either supplement or replace their IC 100 with a Cellomics HCS platform.
Indeed, Cellomics may be able to place additional instruments down the road with customers as they look to expand their high-content imaging capabilities or possibly replace the IC 100 platform, as it is currently unclear how long Cellomics intends to support the technology.
"There is nothing to say that the customers would do this, but down the line as well, with support from Cellomics, one could envision that as the customers' interests expand or change in imaging, that Cellomics may have other products that naturally fit in to what they need as well," Beckman's Bezold said.
According to Cellomics, there are minimal differences between the capabilities of the IC 100 and its flagship KineticScan and ArrayScan VTI HCS readers.
"There are some differences in software features between what the IC100 offers and what the Cellomics software offers; however, to our knowledge, from a technology perspective, there are not any capabilities that the IC100 system has that Cellomics' systems cannot perform," Masucci said.
Baylor's Mancini disagrees. He said that his lab recently demoed Cellomics' top-of-the-line scanner, the ArrayScan VTI, and while "there are a couple of neat things on it," such as an adjustable objective turret, "it just can't do the high-end, high-magnification fluorescence that we can do."
Mancini is also a co-director of the Gulf Coast Consortium for Chemical Genomics, a group of six Texas-area universities and research centers that has significant NIH funding and a special interest in applying cell-based imaging technologies to chemical genomics research.
As such, the consortium will be looking to further beef up its high-content imaging capabilities over the next several months, and Mancini said that its options are limited.
"For the high-end stuff, there is nothing out there except the IC 100 or the Evotec [Opera]," he said. "The Evotec system is expensive and likely not ever going to be in an academic lab. But at some point we're going to need more machines.
"It would be great if we could buy some more IC 100s, but short of that, the Evotec system is the only thing that will make sense," he added.
Ben Butkus ([email protected])