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Beckman Aims Rejuvenated SNPstream At Underserved Mid-Market Facilities

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Beckman Coulter will significantly improve on a recently acquired genotyping product in the hopes of dominating the middle-market research community, SNPtech Reporter has learned.

In two weeks, the genomics tool giant intends to roll out a smaller and more powerful version of the SNPstream genotyping platform it obtained from Orchid Biosciences late last year — but the trick will be not to make it too powerful.

“There’s technology that’s very well known out there, with very high throughput,” Mike Boyce-Jacino, head of strategic affairs at Beckman, told SNPtech Reporter last week. “And then there’s these technologies that have been around awhile, like Sequenom. But there’s really nothing in the middle.”

The launch will firmly plant Beckman into the scrappy, yet underserved market populated by mid-sized academic labs and moderate-sized pharmaceutical companies — precisely the kinds of labs its two main competitors, Illumina and Sequenom, overstep.

“It’s really an opportunity to create something in that middle market where most of these service labs and most of the pharma labs are in terms of price, and in terms of capacity,” he said.

Around last Christmas, when Beckman was wrapping Orchid’s Life Sciences division into its systems biology unit [see SNPtech Reporter, Jan. 17, 2003], it began studying ways to apply its own genomics armamentarium to Orchid’s SNPstream product. As it stood in December, the SNPstream was a two-channel, 16-spot platform that some regarded as the runt of the SNP-genotyping industry.

Beckman also took control of worldwide distribution for the technology, which had been enfeebled by Orchid’s underdeveloped sales muscle. Immediately, Beckman set out to train and mobilize its own staff, and will “relaunch” the tool in two weeks as part of a new family of products.

This new family, which Beckman will call GenomeLab, will comprise a new version of the company’s gene sequencer — the CEQ 8800 — as well as the new SNPstream. Though it will initially be sold in its earlier incarnation, the SNPstream will become available in January as a four-color, 52-spot array with 48-plex PCR/genotyping capabilities, Boyce-Jacino said.

The unit, which is designed to sit on a bench top, will cost around $250,000 and will enable researchers to perform either 4,600 genotypes per day manually or more than 800,000 genotypes per day when automated, according to a company document obtained by SNPtech Reporter.

According to Beckman, the newer SNPstream incarnation will enable researchers to access Autoprimer.com, a web-based tool developed by Beckman that can provide primers and tag assignments using internally developed algorithms. Additionally, Beckman said researchers can use its Biomek liquid handlers to automate pre- and post-PCR setup.

Customers for this product will likely mirror original SNPstream clientele, Boyce-Jacino said: core academic facilities and pharmaceutical labs. “One of the nice things about the system is that it’s very flexible, so if different academic researchers are giving SNPs to their core facilities, SNPstream is really well suited to allow them to combine experiments on arrays when they’re getting SNPs from different sources,” he said.

Boyce-Jacino, who had been Orchid’s chief science officer and vice president of the company’s Life Science division, said the second incarnation is currently being tested at an undisclosed number of “international” labs. He said these facilities will eventually be among the product’s first customers.

In discussing competition, Boyce-Jacino pointed specifically to Illumina’s BeadLab product and faulted that system as “hugely expensive.” The BeadLab sells for between $1.5 million and $2 million, but can crank out up to 1 million genotypes per day, Illumina said. The company has already sold the giant instrument to the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Genome Quebec, and, most recently, to the National Center for Biochip Technology in Shanghai, China [see page 8].

“There’s nobody in between,” said Boyce-Jacino. “It’s really an opportunity to create something in that middle market where most of these service labs and most of the pharma labs are in terms of price, and in terms of capacity. Today there’s an ideal situation for Beckman.”

When the SNPstream was still an Orchid product, company officials were talking about creating a 52-spot genotyping platform, according to Brian McKeown, technical development manager of Orchid Biosciences Europe. “We already had spotting technology to spot out 52 spots within the 384-well footprint,” he said last week by telephone from his office in Cambridge, UK. “Four-color was always this dream that we had, and it was obvious that [SNPstream] needed four color.”

Last December, Beckman took control of Orchid’s instrumentation business, the unreleased Chromosome Browser software and reagents — which Beckman shrewdly will market back to Orchid — as well as a non-exclusive license to use Orchid’s SNP-IT analysis technology in diagnostics, and an exclusive license to use SNP-IT in products sold to research and specialty-testing markets.

Beckman also assumed “certain obligations” to Orchid’s reagents and instrument leases. When its technology was acquired, Orchid had relationships with Estonian genotyping company Asper Biotech, AstraZeneca, the British government, Ellipsis, First Genetic Trust, GlaxoSmithKline, Invitrogen, Lilly, Merck, PerkinElmer, livestock breeder PIC, British life-science company Tepnel, and Thermo BioStar.

Orchid, meantime, retained rights to use SNP-IT in the diagnostics market and in its genoprofiling-service businesses. The company would also continue using SNP-IT for its pharmaceutical and agricultural customers, and has retained the rights to its portfolio of SNP-technology patents.

At the time, most industry analysts met the business acquisition with a yawn. Though neither Beckman nor Orchid would disclose financial details, industry watchers believe the deal was worth less than $10 million. When asked late last year what Beckman paid for the unit, Jay Steffenhagen, Beckman’s VP of corporate strategic planning and business development, said “not much.”

Indeed, the instrumentation portion of Orchid’s business is expected to generate between $3 million and $5 million in revenue for Beckman, according to Steffenhagen — a pittance for a company that reported more than $500 million in receipts and more than $32 million in profits at the time of the acquisition.

“We ... believe there will be a very large opportunity to really understand disease association and SNPs,” Brendan Yee, strategic marketing manager of Beckman’s biological systems operations, told SNPtech Reporter in January. “We think [the SNPstream] is a great product.”

— KL

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