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In Acquiring Protometrix, Invitrogen Injects Fuel Into Protein Array Field

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Invitrogen acquired Protometrix last week, in a bid to turn the protein array company into the “Affymetrix of protein chips” as it begins the process of aggressively building Invitrogen’s proteomics capabilities, according to Invitrogen CEO Greg Lucier.

“We have a lot in mind” in regards to proteomics, Lucier told ProteoMonitor this week. “This is just another in the series of acquisitions we’ve made in the last year, and we’ll continue to do that.” Lucier said that Invitrogen was interested in purchasing a protein array company because it particularly wanted to add high-throughput protein function capabilities to its portfolio. In addition, he said, “we’re interested in all of the steps [in proteomics] ahead of mass spec.” He said that Invitrogen has no interest in becoming a mass spec vendor.

Industry watchers had plenty of warning that Invitrogen might acquire a proteomics technology company: Invitrogen told ProteoMonitor last November that it was making a big push to expand into the proteomics space (see PM 11-28-03), and Lucier said at Invitrogen’s annual guidance conference in New York last December that the company views acquisitions as “an important part of its strategy for 2004.” He went on to say that proteomics was one of Invitrogen’s particular areas of interest (see PM 12-12-03).

What made Branford, Conn.-based Protometrix an attractive acquisition target for Invitrogen was its technology for spotting most of the yeast proteome array on a single chip, as well as the fact that this technology is well protected by IP, said Lucier. The technology, invented by Michael Snyder, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University, was developed into one of the first commercially available arrays to employ proteins other than antibodies or cytokines on a mass scale. Snyder spun Protometrix out three years ago.

Protometrix initially released the Yeast ProtoArray last November — following demand from beta testing sites — in what Paul Predki, Protometrix’ vice president for R&D, this week called a “soft launch.” “I mean that we haven’t really done a specific marketing activity — you won’t be able to look through any journals and see it advertised, for instance,” Predki said. He wouldn’t reveal how many arrays had been sold so far in this way, but said that while academics were the primary customers, “we’ve sold a number to pharma” as well.

Predki told ProteoMonitor in November that the company was in the “final stages” of a deal with a distributor that would do more extensive marketing for the chip this year. He would not confirm this week that the company to which he was referring at that time was Invitrogen, although Lucier said that Invitrogen started discussions with Protometrix before the end of 2003. “We were in pretty advanced discussions with more than one group,” Predki said. He said additionally that Protometrix was not initially looking to be acquired. “What we were looking for initially was a really good distribution and marketing end for our products … in the end, we found something more than that,” he said.

Snyder said that while acquisition was always a possible endpoint for the company, “I think it could have gone on its own if it had more investment.” But he expressed relief that Protometrix had avoided being acquired by the type of company that may have been more interested in selling it for parts than in developing its technology. “It’s important that if it is going to get acquired by a company, it gets acquired by one that has a strong interest in this area — it can’t just be a casual interest,” he said. He said he was “enthused” about the transaction, and was pleased that the company would remain in Connecticut, “close to me.” He expected to continue his involvement with the company in some capacity following the takeover.

In fact, little of the day-to-day operations of the company will change much as a result of the acquisition, according to Lucier: Protometrix will remain a standalone business with its own management team, although Invitrogen will hire a new sales force. “We intend to keep them in Connecticut, and focused on developing the technology further, and basically supplying into the overall Invitrogen system,” Lucier said. He added that integration activities should be completed within 12 months, and will focus mostly on sales and marketing. Invitrogen will also maintain all of Protometrix’ current collaborations — the company has two with companies participating in the RCE biodefense program, for example (see PM 9-12-03) — and will seek to add to them, particularly in the area of drug discovery.

Sell it or Serve it?

Meanwhile, Invitrogen is diving into its marketing campaign: it is planning a formal launch for the Yeast ProtoArray at BIO 2004 in June, and Lucier said that conference would also be a venue for the release of “a lot of interesting news” concerning the company’s efforts to develop chips for the complete human proteome — a project that Protometrix has been working on, and that Invitrogen will now accelerate, Lucier said.

Predki confirmed that “sub-proteome arrays” containing human phosphatases, transcription factors, and G-protein coupled receptors are also in the pipeline. Meanwhile, the company will begin launching human kinase arrays in the second half of the year. For these, Protometrix is expanding beyond the original interaction array technology developed for ProtoArray, into two other types of chips that Predki called “substrate identification chips” and “biochemical acti-vity arrays,” respectively. Use of the substrate chip will involve running a solution of labeled ATP and a particular kinase over a chip that contains a variety of potential substrates, in order to find active substrates for the kinase. The activity chip will consist of spots containing hundreds of co-localized kinase-substrate pairs that can be activated by ATP. Solutions containing inhibitors could be added to the chip and inhibition of the phosphorylation reaction measured, Predki said. All three varieties of chips — interaction arrays, substrate chips, and activity arrays — will eventu-ally be released in kinase form, Predki said.

Predki added that while several sub-proteome arrays would be released as both products and services, the full proteome collection that Protometrix and Invitrogen have been developing would be made available only under a service model. “At this point internally we’ve developed a collection of about 5,000 validated human proteins, [and] we’re able to now combine that with collections existing in Invitrogen. … What we don’t intend to do, is put all those proteins on an array and sell that array — that array will be retained for services,” he said. Predki said the reason for taking this approach was so that the company could later leverage the collection to “develop higher-level relationships with companies involved in drug discovery.”

Still a Wildcard

If it gets no other benefit from being acquired, Protometrix will clearly get a boost from Invitrogen’s marketing machine: According to Lucier, the company has “the biggest distribution force in the scientific tools business,” and he said it plans to use that to force to “get [ProtoArray] marketed and sold everywhere in the world.” He was confident that Protometrix needed this help. “They just could never have done that in any rapid fashion on their own,” he said.

According to Steven Bodovitz, principal consultant for Select Biosciences, a firm that tracks life sciences market trends, it indeed would have been difficult for Protometrix alone to widely market all its proteome chips. “There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all protein biochip,” he said. “So when you look at it in terms of that, you need to divide the proteome into different sections, and then all of a sudden you’re talking about subdividing your market as well. … You need to understand each market individu-ally, and then having a company like Invitrogen that has a presence in all these different little markets, definitely aids a lot.”

There are other potential benefits as well. Predki predicted that Protometrix will benefit from being able to link up with Invitrogen products for follow-up validation, and particularly with the Gateway system. Lucier also expressed interest in merging technology offerings, and Snyder pointed to Molecular Probes’ labeling technology as appropriate for use with Protometrix’ arrays as well.

Lucier envisioned integrating Protometrix’ chips into a larger Invitrogen pipeline. “Once you have used this tool, theoretically you can go back to look at the gene of interest using our Gateway technology, and then you can go forward into our cell-based assays that we acquired out of PanVera. So this is a whole concept of Invitrogen’s linking together these technologies to accelerate drug development and technology,” he said.

But according to Bodovitz, even after the acquisition, Protometrix will still remain something of a wildcard. He said that since the acquisition price was not disclosed — Lucier said it would be made public only at the end of the second quarter, in the company’s 10Q — it was not clear what Invitrogen really considered the value of Protometrix to be. And although it was encouraging that the ProtoArray would launch this summer, the technology still hasn’t really been put to the test. Researchers “haven’t put [ProtoArray] through its paces yet and shown whether it’s really going to be useful or not,” Bodovitz said.

Still, the technology gains credibility — deserved or not — from the mere fact that Invitrogen bought the company and has announced a launch date for the chip, Bodovitz said. “The assumption is that Invitrogen did its due diligence,” he said.

In addition, the entrance of a major instrument company into the protein chip arena is significant for the entire field, he said. “The presumption was that if you’re Invitrogen, or Amersham, or ABI — companies of that size tend to take more of a watch and wait approach and let small companies develop the markets and then they’ll enter at a different stage,” he said. “So if they were taking a ‘watch and wait’ approach, then this does represent progress.” Additionally, ”the launch time table certainly has a lot more credibility than it did before — when a big company announces a launch, they kind of have to stick to it,” he said.

The ProtoArray launch could ultimately be key to jump-starting the sector, Bodovitz said. “One of the things that has been holding back the protein chip field for a long time has been the lack of products. If a company can come in and get the product out, that would be major progress,” he said.

— KAM

 

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