Scanalytics may have been the last relatively well-established company to be snatched up by an HCS provider when it announced it had been acquired by BD's Atto Bioscience division earlier this month (see related story, this issue), but it is not the last image-analysis firm out there.
In the past year, for example, nascent biotechs Definiens and Vala Sciences have unveiled image-analysis software for HCS.
Definiens has been around a bit longer, and has already aligned itself with HCS vendor Evotec Technologies, as well as drug-discovery firms BioImage and Cenix Bioscience. And indeed, as evidenced by recent comments made by Max Planck Institute's Ivan Baines in an interview with CBA News, the Definiens software provides added utility to Acapella, the image-analysis package that comes with Opera (see CBA News, 7/1//2005).
Vala was founded by former Q3DM founder Jeff Price, whose former company was eventually acquired by Beckman Coulter for its imaging capabilities. Vala announced its presence on the scene in February, and soon thereafter began shipping its first products to a few undisclosed customers, Price told CBA News at the time. Vala has yet to publicly disclose a software customer; however, it is also bundling assay reagents with its software.
Price himself told CBA News at that time that Vala was exploring partnerships with instrument manufacturers to validate its software and reagents on their imaging systems because he felt it was important that the software not be linked to any one platform.
Definiens and Vala Sciences are toast. They're completely toast. The reality is that once a person buys the box, they expect the software to be with it. Once you've bundled the software with the hardware, an independent software vendor is toast."
But with big HCS providers snatching up software vendors like hotcakes, and the competitive threat of open-access image-analysis software being developed by Whitehead Institute researchers looming (see CBA News, 7/4/2005), how long will companies such as Definiens and Vala Sciences remain independent?
Not very long, according to one industry insider who requested anonymity because of his current affiliation with a screening technology vendor. "They're toast. They're completely toast. The reality is that once a person buys the box, they expect the software to be with it. Once you've bundled the software with the hardware, an independent software vendor is toast.
"So someone like Definiens, which has really hot software, is never going to make it," he added. "By and large, informatics fails because of that reason. You have to ask the real question: 'Do you need the precision that a better algorithm brings? When it's good enough, are people going to spend money to get better?' On the analysis [side], there is just no way a company can capture a real revenue stream."
Others disagree. One researcher in the high-content screening division of a top-10 pharmaceutical company, who wished to remain anonymous due to company policy, told CBA News that independent software vendors could remain viable with unique offerings and aggressive pricing.
"The cell analysis software on our instrument has not always met our needs," the source said. "There are a number of applications on our current instrument that are adequate for certain biology, and then there is other biology where we've had a very difficult time capturing the kind of quantitation we wanted.
"I've found that some of the independent software companies do offer more sophisticated solutions to image-analysis than some of the current packages that come with the instrument software," the source added.
The researcher also told CBA News that the pharma company was in fact pursuing some independent analysis packages, including Definiens' Cellenger and Molecular Devices' MetaMorph, which MDCC sells as a standalone offering.
"We find that they are not so pricey that we can't have them as supplementary packages to use with our instrumentation," the source said. "In that sense, if the company can offer competitive pricing and something unique, that there is certainly a place for them. But I know the companies that manufacture the hardware are hungry for some of the features that these more sophisticated packages offer, so it's very possible that they will make offers to purchase those companies."
— Ben Butkus ([email protected])