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Opposing Marketing Strategies Fuel Recent Amnis CEO Switch

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Jack Ball's departure as CEO of Seattle-based Amnis Corporation, revealed last week, was the result of a difference in opinion over the aggressiveness with which the company should market its flagship ImageStream 100 imaging cytometer, CBA News has learned.

"The company really decided to take a different path to commercialization that didn't require the skill sets that I brought in," Ball said. "We just sort of differed on what was the best way to move forward commercially. I would say that [Amnis] wants a more low-key approach to commercialization."

Ball declined to provide further details about Amnis' strategy for commercialization moving forward, but said that he felt the company might not be taking enough advantage of ImageStream's early commercial success.

"It just meant hiring more reps, and keeping the burn at a higher level," Ball said. "I built out a sales and marketing team and was pretty active on the public relations front … and we were really starting to get good commercial success — we sold two units in December, sold a unit in each of January, February, and March, so we were really starting to get some good commercial traction.

"I'm pretty proud of what I accomplished when I was there," Ball added. "I built a commercial team, and we were able to launch the product and sell all the beta versions at about 90 percent of the list price."

As CBA News reported last week, former chief technology officer and company co-founder David Basiji has taken over as CEO of Amnis. It is unclear whether Basiji's former position has been filled.

Amnis declined to comment on Ball's departure.

It's possible that the difference in opinion centered on whether Amnis should seek additional VC funding — and risk its officers and directors diluting their ownership of the firm — in order to finance more aggressive marketing and sales tactics. Ball noted that he was able to "deliver a term sheet with $15 million of new money that [Amnis'] board decided not to accept."

As reported last March in GenomeWeb News, a Cell-Based Assay News sister publication, Amnis was considering raising an additional $10 million to the approximately $13 million it had raised since the company was founded in 1998. Last year, Amnis was reported to have 26 employees, a number that Ball last week said he hoped to increase to 35 or more.

It is unclear how many people Amnis currently employs, or whether the company intends to actively pursue additional VC funding in the near future. Officials from Amnis declined comment.

The company would certainly have needed an aggressive marketing plan if it was to realize Ball's belief that the company could eventually sell 7,000 to 8,000 instruments worldwide, as he stated late last year (see CBA News, 11/23/2004). The company would have hoped to see most of these instruments placed in core flow cytometry labs for basic biological research as well as drug and toxicity screening, Amnis said.

And although Amnis has reiterated that such application areas remain the primary target for ImageStream, the company is exploring other potential applications for the instrument. It recently won $1.4 million worth of NIH grants to develop high-throughput fluorescence in situ hybridization capabilities based on the technology. If this venture pans out, it would open up the possibility of garnering diagnostic flow labs as customers. Basiji has noted, however, that a commercial product for this application is much farther down the road (see CBA News, 4/18/2005).

Since December, Amnis has announced five new ImageStream customers in addition to an established beta-tester-turned-customer from earlier last year. The company has stayed true to its pricing structure for ImageStream. Last year, Ball said that the instrument would cost about $250,000, and that price point remained unchanged when the ImageStream was officially launched in December.

"I still think that it's going to have its biggest application in automated cell classification, the analysis of translocation of NF?B in non-adherent cells such as those from the immune system, and probably mechanism of action," Ball said. "It's really phenomenal the way you can follow a monoclonal from binding to a cell surface … to when it's internalized and what happens to it when it's internalized.

"I think it's going to be absolutely huge in helping monoclonal manufacturers understand what's going on with their drugs," he added. "The company, while I was there, was getting a tremendous amount of interest from core facility directors that saw this as a must-have technology."

Ball joined Amnis in February 2004 from Molecular Probes, where he served as chief commercial officer. Prior to that, he was senior vice president at Orchid Biosciences, and held several positions over more than a decade at Amersham Pharmacia Biotech.

He was Amnis' second CEO, having replaced the company's co-founder and acting CEO Harold Kawaguchi.

The company's third co-founder (in addition to Basiji and Kawaguchi), William Ortyn, remains with Amnis as its chief operating officer.

— BB

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