Several months after Beckman Coulter decided to abandon its Cell Lab IC 100 imaging cytometer product line, the future of the platform is still shrouded in uncertainty, much to the disappointment of some of the instrument's users.
However, users remain cautiously optimistic that the platform will re-emerge. Beckman and Q3DM the small San Diego-based biotech that originally developed the underlying technology continue to court buyers for the entire platform, but could also end up selling components of the patent portfolio piecemeal, according to Jeff Price, a Q3DM founder and inventor of the imaging cytometer.
For the moment, Beckman is continuing to provide support for the instrument and look for new applications, as it said it would in November when it jettisoned the technology, according to Karen Bezold, director of research cytometry for Beckman Coulter.
"We are supporting the customers with the idea that it's part of the whole package," she said. "If and when we find someone that wants to invest in the IP or product line, support of these customers will be part of that."
The IC 100 got its start as the EIDAQ 100 high-throughput fluorescence imaging system, which was invented by Price and colleague David Gough in the early 1990s, and became the flagship technology of Q3DM.
"It makes the deals more complicated, but the IP might be more valuable carved up in parts than it is in one entire set."
When it acquired Q3DM in late 2003 in an attempt to ride the wave of the emerging high-content screening market, Beckman Coulter promptly packaged the relatively raw EIDAQ 100 instrument into a marketable HCS reader. With Q3DM's software development talent on board, and Beckman's own reagent and instrumentation play, the company seemed poised to elbow in on the rapidly crowding HCS market.
Late last year, however, Beckman said that it was dropping the IC 100 product line as well as other "big-ticket" items as part of a massive restructuring that coincided with the arrival of new president and CEO Scott Garrett. At the time, a Beckman official said that "imaging simply is not on the short list of investment opportunities [that Beckman] felt would deliver the best returns." (See CBA News, 11/21/2005).
The announcement effectively took Beckman Coulter back out of the HCS market, left the former Q3DM employees without a home for their technology, and left several early IC 100 customers wondering what would happen to the instrument in which they invested.
Beckman, however, has not completely washed its hands of the situation. Currently, according to Price, the Q3DM brain trust and Beckman are still working together to find a buyer for the IC 100 technology.
"One of the things that people don't realize is that Beckman Coulter didn't buy the IP outright from Q3DM," Price said. "Q3DM still exists as the Q3DM trust. The IP was actually licensed to Beckman Coulter, so because Q3DM still has partial ownership of it … then together Q3DM and Beckman will be looking for a buyer for the instrument and the intellectual property."
Price added that the licensing agreement is binding, and as such, "the easiest and most logical thing for us is to go out and market it together."
Price declined to reveal whether any entity has expressed interest in the platform yet, but offered some insight about what type of company might be best suited to acquire it. According to Price, the underlying IP can essentially be divided up into three segments: hardware-related items, such as patents for an auto-focusing mechanism and arc lamp stabilization; software, including specific image-analysis methods and algorithms, which are encompassed in the supporting Cytoshop software; and applications, such as drug screening.
And although Beckman/Q3DM is striving to license the IP and hardware as one package, Price acknowledged that it would be willing to sell it piecemeal.
"A hardware vendor that has [its] own methods that may or may not overlap with Q3DM's, might then be interested in the software and the applications," Price said. "A company that has no instrument might want an instrument, or might only want the software.
"The Cytoshop software includes a component that runs all the robotics and makes the instrument move and acquires the images," he added. "But the software also runs independent of that hardware, so it could be sold separately. The CytoShop is also built using a plug-in architecture so that individual applications can be easily taken out of the software and put into somebody else's software. So there are a number of approaches to think about of how others might be interested in licensing the technology."
"We look forward to getting a service contract, and the machine itself is so far ahead of the others that it will be good for at least several years without anybody seriously challenging it."
In the end, he said, "it makes the deals more complicated, but the IP might be more valuable carved up in parts than it is in one entire set."
Another benefit to potential buyers looking to either enter the HCS field or beef up their current offerings is a patent portfolio that may be the strongest this side of Cellomics (see related story this issue).
No potential buyers lurk on the horizon, however, and for the time being, Beckman continues to provide support for the instrument through a handful of employees in its San Diego offices. Users of the instrument are antsy about its status, but hopeful that Beckman will at least soon find a stable service provider for it.
Price estimated that about a dozen IC 100s had been placed before Beckman ended the product line, and that about a dozen more were in the pipeline, although he wasn't sure. Beckman's Bezold confirmed that the number of units sold was "less than 25." Most of the instruments placed were likely in academic labs, although Price said he also believes some pharma researchers were interested.
"I think they had a lot of demand to sell more instruments, but in the midst of that, they were going through their reorganization, and they kind of sent two messages to the marketplace," Price said. "They didn't really completely release it globally, so there were question marks in customers' minds about what exactly they were doing with the instrument. It's a little tough to know exactly what would have happened with market penetration. I think that just about the time that interest was accelerating was about the time they dropped it."
Mike Mancini, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and director of the Integrated Microscopy Core at Baylor College of Medicine, invested in a pair of IC 100's to support work being done in his lab and at the Gulf Coast Consortium NIH screening center, which he also co-directs.
"We have reached a good parting with Beckman, so we're not freaking out too much," he said. "We look forward to getting a service contract, and the machine itself is so far ahead of the others that it will be good for at least several years without anybody seriously challenging it." Mancini said these thoughts were reaffirmed when he recently attended CHI's High-Content Analysis meeting and "looked closely again at what [else] was offered."
Will Vala Sciences Pick Up
Though Beckman Coulter has said that it will continue to support the IC 100 instrument and look for new applications, some customers who want to move forward with more cutting-edge applications for cellular analysis may prefer to have a more dedicated team assisting them.
This could be an opportunity for the instrument's inventor, Jeff Price, to get involved again through his newest biotech startup, image analysis software and reagent firm Vala Sciences.
"As far as I know, Beckman's plan is to support all of the IC 100s that are out there, and they're going to do a good job," Price told CBA News. "There is the potential for someone else to be giving that support, however, and I think Vala could do that if Beckman Coulter was interested. Maybe since they're dropping the business, it's a hassle for them to continue supporting existing instruments. Vala is perfectly capable of doing that."
For now, Vala's interest in the technology ends there, Price added, as the company "has no clear-cut plan" to become an instrumentation vendor and resurrect the IC 100.
"Vala has focused on new software and new applications, new screens," he said. "Because of the number of hardware vendors that are out there, it purposefully stepped away from the hardware."
Price added that Vala has had only informal discussions thus far with Beckman about taking over the service contract.
Mancini lauded the instrument's combination of high image resolution and high speed. These attributes, he said, make the platform useful as both a high-speed basic research tool to support his lab's work on interrogating transcription function in live cells; and as a full-blown screening instrument to support some of the chemical library screens being conducted at Baylor and the Gulf Coast Consortium.
"There's just a ton of work that we got done this last year that I don't think we could have gotten done with other systems, and certainly not for the price," he said. "I do have some interest in something like the Evotec [Opera], but for almost a million bucks, it's just not acceptable."
David Zacharias, an assistant professor at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience and in the College of Medicine at the University of Florida, has worked with the IC 100 and its precursor EIDAQ 100 since he was a researcher with Merck from 2000 to 2003. His lab currently uses the instrument to study the mechanisms that regulate the palmitoylation of proteins.
Zacharais said that the IC 100 is "a great instrument," but that he actually preferred the original version over the "boxed" version designed to be marketed primarily to pharmaceutical researchers.
"The real unique factor in the instrument is the control unit, what's integrated into it, and ultimately the analytical tools for post-data-acquisition analysis," Zacharias said. "[Beckman] put it in a kitchen cabinet and really limited access to all of the components. I liked the open architecture of the EIDAQ. The industry version was designed to allow people to just dump on a stack of plates and come back in the morning and get their data, which is what industry needs and wants, but the academic wants to be able to change the light path, to change components in the light path, cameras, to change anything."
Even though Beckman is still providing limited support, Zacharias said that his lab has hedged its bets and recently beefed up its IC 100 expertise by hiring a former Beckman/Q3DM engineer who lost his job when Beckman shuttered its cellular imaging facility.
Dominik Lenz, a postdoc in the imaging cytometry labs of Paul Robinson at Purdue University, told CBA News that he helped conduct an intensive four-month evaluation of the IC 100, and although he saw a lot of potential in the instrument, he also believed it "wasn't quite mature enough" to compete in the market.
"The autofocus system, if it works, creates images of great quality as compared with anything else available," he said. Another intriguing aspect is the instrument's segmentation algorithm, he added. Basically, this feature allows researchers to interrogate very dense samples, such as tissue sections or cell culture, because the system recognizes individual cells based on nuclei distribution. Most other systems on the market, he said, measure fluorescence threshold analysis, which can make it difficult to distinguish individual cells.
However, Lenz said, the autofocus can also be a problem, particularly because of its dependence on UV dyes to provide contrast. This feature, he said, makes it necessary to use UV dyes, which in turn makes the instrument less flexible.
"I cannot say enough, though, about the potential of the instrument," he added.
Ben Butkus ([email protected])