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Amersham Biosciences Launches Informatics Business Unit; First Products Due by Year-End

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Amersham Biosciences is building a formal informatics business unit within its organization, company officials told BioInform last week.

The unit, which is expected to have more than 100 employees dedicated to bio-, chem-, and protein informatics by the end of the year, was formed as part of a larger reorganization within the company. In the wake of its name change from Amersham Pharmacia Biotech in October 2001, Amersham Biosciences regrouped in February, splitting its discovery product line into two segments: discovery systems and protein separations. The informatics tools associated with those product lines provided the basis for the formal business unit, which emerged two months ago.

John Schneider, vice president of informatics marketing at Amersham Biosciences, said that over a year of planning and preparation went into the launch of the unit, which expects to introduce the first product in its Scierra line of laboratory workflow tools before the end of 2002.

Amersham has been developing the Scierra products in cooperation with Salt Lake City-based software firm Cimarron since 1996. Last week, Amersham acquired a controlling stake in Cimarron with an option to purchase the company over the next three years, further cementing its dedication to becoming a player in the informatics market.

Although Amersham has a history of developing its own informatics tools and has numerous OEM deals with software companies in place, Schneider said the time was right to organize its informatics activities under a dedicated business group, led by Jerry Walker, vice president of informatics.

“We see informatics as a critical business for us to be in going forward,” said Schneider. “There’s a large percentage of development dollars spent on tools in biotech, research, and pharmaceutical businesses. And when we looked at how much this percentage was and how fast it was increasing in the spectrum of things that you might put under the umbrella of informatics, we realized that very quickly we might be looking at a 30-40 percent slice of biotech spending.”

While noting that today’s informatics spending may only be 10-15 percent of R&D budgets, Schneider said that number could easily double, “and if we weren’t prepared to be in the market, we would be at a disadvantage as a provider of tools.”

The plan may prove to be a sound one. No one in the industry disputes the heavy demand for informatics tools, but specialized software vendors have had a tough time hitting on the right business model to ensure survival. Following on the heels of Applied Biosystems’ decision to market sister company Celera’s Discovery System, it appears that instrumentation firms are stepping into the void left by failed software and database providers.

But, Schneider admitted, “It’s not easy just to turn yourself into an informatics company overnight.” In addition to the planning that led up to the launch of the business unit two months ago, much work remains to be done in terms of staffing the group and finalizing its product roadmap. Sales, support, and other services from different areas within Amersham will also be brought in to assist the new unit, but, again, it was too soon for Schneider to disclose any further details.

As the first line of tools to emerge from the business area, the Scierra products will be closely tied to Amersham’s instrument platforms. Dubbing Scierra’s tasks “acquisition informatics,” Schneider said the tools are designed for experimental design, sample tracking, and quality control analysis in proteomics, gene expression analysis, genotyping, and DNA sequencing. The platform will link the various high-throughput experiments taking place across a lab and will automatically deposit data in a centralized data warehouse, acting as an “electronic lab notebook,” he said.

While the first release of Scierra will support Amersham’s own instruments, Schneider said the company has “a very specifically stated open systems policy” that will allow customers to use the system with competitors’ instruments as well.

Schneider said that Amersham’s informatics strengths have so far been tied to its instrumentation, but the company does have plans for “developing and acquiring technologies that would lead us into the discovery realm, which we see as being initially populated by a series of data-mining tools and infrastructures to support data mining.”

— BT

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