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Agilent, ABI Latest Instrument Vendors to Turn to Informatics for Competitive Edge

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In a trend running counter to the trials and tribulations of pure-play informatics software firms, companies selling life science instrumentation are increasingly relying on their informatics offerings to provide a competitive advantage.

Last week, Agilent launched a new informatics product, co-launched a bioinformatics tool with Rosetta Biosoftware, and announced a partnership with Spotfire, while Applied Biosystems said it would resell GeneticXchange’s DiscoveryHub integration middleware through its professional services program. The companies add to the list of instrumentation vendors, including Amersham Biosciences and PerkinElmer, which have bolstered their informatics portfolios in recent months, either by expanding their distribution partnerships or by increasing their in-house development activities (see table, p. 8).

The ultimate strategic goal for these firms is the dream of vendor and customer alike: the oft-cited (but rarely witnessed) “end-to-end” solution. If anyone in the life sciences can do it, say instrumentation firms, they can.

Agilent’s recent release of its Synapsia Informatics Workbench, for example, signals that the company has “evolved from just providing boxes to providing a full solution that involves multiple technologies,” said Francois Mandeville, business manager of the company’s informatics solutions business. The platform, which Mandeville described as “a dashboard for scientists to have rapid access to different types of information,” is the first product to come out of the company’s new informatics business unit, launched in April.

Other informatics tools are slated for rollout in coming months, Mandeville said. Agilent will also have exclusive distribution rights to Rosetta’s Luminator client-server bioinformatics system for storing and analyzing microarraydata.

 

Finding the Right Niche

Agilent realized several years ago that “we can’t be a major player in the life sciences unless we tackle the informatics issues associated with that,” according to Mandeville. A core team worked quietly for two years researching the current informatics market and interviewing potential customers in over 40 pharma and biotech firms before settling on knowledge integration as the sweet spot for its technology solutions.

Acting as the topmost layer in the typical n-tier informatics architecture of hardware, data sources, and analytics, Synapsia allows users to manipulate and share data analysis tools and visualization applications, and works with third-party data integration technologies and instrumentation systems. Rather than replace current solutions, explained Mandeville, “the workbench allows companies to leverage their current investments in instrumentation and data integration and bioinformatics tools.”

As if to highlight that fact, the day following the launch of Synapsia, Agilent announced that it had licensed Spotfire’s DecisionSite Analytics platform to offer as part of its informatics solutions. “It’s obvious to us that we can’t do it all on our own,” said Mandeville. The key for Agilent, he said, is making it all available — in one form or another — to the customer. In that vein, the company doesn’t perceive its push into informatics as a threat to software vendors, but as a challenge to its instrumentation competitors. “We really believe that what this does is it strengthens Agilent’s position in the market as a comprehensive life science solution provider,” he said.

But Agilent isn’t the only instrumentation vendor with this strategic vision. ABI’s newly formed partnership with GeneticXchange will add new data integration capability to its Rapid Integration Solutions (RIS) program just as the company puts the pieces of its recently launched Knowledge Business into place. RIS is a service-based offering that ABI began over a year and a half ago to integrate its customers’ LIMS, instrumentation, and analysis tools. Approximately 75 customers have opted for the RIS program to date, said Ray Stonecipher, ABI’s senior manager of product marketing. Genetic-Xchange’s DiscoveryHub middleware will permit ABI to add data integration into the mix, extending the reach of RIS beyond the sphere of instrumentation and into downstream analysis. The new capability, said Stonecipher, will permit ABI to build “an end-to-end solution for our customers’ labs” and ensure ABI’s “clear leadership position” in the market.

But whether ABI — or any other instrumentation vendor — is able to deliver on this promise remains to be seen. Mandeville acknowledged that the market is already wary of companies promising more than they can deliver. “When you look at how the market was in early 2000 — a bunch of small informatics startups each claiming they could offer everything to solve the needs of an entire pharma — it was pretty obvious that the industry was going to go through a transformation,” he said. However, he added, “this is a classic case of a new industry.” The recent spate of bad news from bioinformatics vendors is not a sign that the industry doesn’t have a legitimate place in the marketplace, he said, “but more the fact that it’s trying to adjust and find the right business models to be successful.”

According to Mandeville, the demand for informatics solutions in biotech and pharma is more than strong enough to ride out the recent market ups and downs. After observing the market closely for the past two years, Agilent’s verdict was that “this industry is here to stay,” he said. In fact, the only surprise he said he witnessed during that two-year observation period was “how slow it was for the industry to go through the shakedown that’s currently taking place.”

— BT

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