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Agilent Renews Focus on Separations, Hopes To Lead HPLC Consumables Market by 2010

With the launch of its 1200 Rapid Resolution liquid chromatographer last year, Agilent Technologies now has its sights on conquering the separations space.
Nick Roelofs, general manager of life sciences at Agilent, told ProteoMonitor that concurrent with its plan to continue building its mass spectrometry business, Agilent will look to foment its separations business as part of the company’s still-developing proteomics strategy.
“What we’re trying to do is say, ‘OK, we’re pretty strong in separations. There haven’t been a tremendous number of separations companies moving into proteomics,’” Roelofs told ProteoMonitorlast week at the Pittsburgh Conference in Chicago. “We think we can leverage the separations piece along with our competence in mass spec and approach the proteomics space in a different manner.”
Also at Pittcon, Chris van Ingen, president of Agilent's Bio-Analytical division, said the company desires to be the leader in the HPLC consumables market in three years. The company is currently third in that space, van Ingen said. To help achieve this goal, the firm is considering mergers or acquisitions, and plans to “refit” its sales channel.
While earlier comments by Agilent officials made it clear that proteomics would play a critical role in its new iteration as a pure-play instrument shop, last week’s remarks provided additional clarity to the company’s proteomics plans.
“I would submit that to date, most people spend a lot of time on the detector and less time on the separation,” Roelofs said. “So if you could figure out a way to separate [all the proteins] and in that process skim off the top 1,000 abundant junk [protein], if you will, and then separate out the 10,000 interesting ones … then the detection side is adequate, or maybe even over-potent in terms of all the mass specs.”
Agilent’s renewed interest in the separations space follows the launch of the 1200 series RRLC, which has left company officials exuberant about its take-up rate. Last month, Agilent boasted it had shipped its 1,000th unit of the system although it had been on the market for less than a year.
It also comes at a time when the market for separations instruments and tools is gaining heat. According to a report made available this week by market research firm BCC Research, protein separation is growing at a rate of 11.1 percent annually. In 2006, the report said, the US market for protein separation systems reached nearly $3 billion. By 2011, the market will exceed $5 billion.
BCC Research valued the liquid chromatography market at $1.1 billion last year and said it will reach $2.1 billion in 2011.
During its fiscal first quarter ended Jan. 31, Agilent reported sales of its LC instruments rose 21 percent year-over-year. In that market, Waters is perceived to be the leader, though Roelofs said Agilent is neck-and-neck with the company.
Waters’ Acquity UPLC is widely seen as a technological breakthrough. Still, that hasn’t yet resulted in the research community abandoning its HPLCs in favor of the Acquity. Agilent, aware of this dynamic, hopes its new separations technology will lift it to the top of the separations mountain, according to Roelofs.
Those Pesky Low-Abundance Proteins
Agilent’s separations technology will be designed to better identify low-abundance proteins, a task that researchers consistently say is an overwhelming and labor-intensive chore.
According to Roelofs, the problem is technological shortcomings not in mass specs but in separations. Roelofs said that separation has been done traditionally with 2D chromatography and 2D gels. In addition to its multiple affinity removal system columns and Zorbax HPLC columns, Agilent is developing 2D LC chip technology. 
“We’re trying to take our affinity skimming followed by the 2D traditional ion plus reverse phase, but now reduced to practice on a single chip to drive the separations edge,” Roelofs said. “And that’s where we think we can make some progress.”
At Pittcon, the company said it has expanded the functionality of its HPLC chip for use across Agilent’s entire LC/MS instrument line.
In addition, Roelofs said, the company “certainly is looking with some of our M&A money to improve the consumables business.
“We’re looking at refitting our [sales] channel in order to optimize [results],” he said. “Obviously the purchase cycle of an instrument is different than the purchase cycle of a consumable. There are synergies at the time of the sale of an instrument, but then the follow-on sales need some more optimal channels than instruments.
“We’ve been evolving over several years an optimal channel for the consumables side. So it is a big focus,” Roelofs said.
Agilent’s new push into the proteomics business comes amidst an aggressive five-year, $1.4 billion overhaul aimed at turning it into a pure-play instrument company from its prior iteration as a firm best-known for its semiconductor business.
As part of the makeover, the company last year refreshed its instruments portfolio, punctuated by the launch of its 1200 Series RRLC and a number of new mass specs.
This past January, company officials declared their proteomics ambitions when they put at the head of Agilent's four-point growth initiative, a plan to expand its LC/MS business by moving into the multi-sector instrument space. The company had traditionally operated in the single-instrument sector [See PM 01/11/07].

“What we’re trying to do is say, ‘OK, we’re pretty strong in separations. There haven’t been a tremendous number of separations companies moving into proteomics.’ We think we can leverage the separations piece along with our competence in mass spec and approach the proteomics space in a different manner.”

MS Appeal
Despite its refocused attention on its separations business, Agilent remains committed to growing its mass spec instruments, company officials said. Annually, the company spends almost 10 percent of the revenues generated by its life sciences and chemical analysis operations on R&D for instruments, Roelofs said. For fiscal 2006, that translated to about $150 million in R&D spending.
“You always make business trade-offs in R&D because you have to figure out where to put your investments,” Roelofs said. But “we’re large enough that, for the most part, this is not an ‘either, or’ discussion. It’s an ‘and.’”
“When you get into that kind of magnitude, you can do a lot of ‘and’ R&D, so we’re doing a lot of stuff in separations and continuing to push the front end of the LC/MS,” he said.
During a conference call with analysts accompanying the release of Agilent’s fiscal first-quarter earnings, CEO William Sullivan touted the sales of its suite of new instruments, including its LC/MS systems [See PM 02/22/07]. Last week, van Ingen said its LC/MS systems sales grew 108 percent during the quarter. He also said that Agilent will launch a new LC/MS system in June at the American Society for Mass Spectrometry conference.
According to Roelofs, Agilent is working to increase the mass range, mass sensitivity, and sample rate of its mass specs.
“We’re obviously not the first [company] to launch the triple quad, obviously not the first to launch the Q-TOF,” he said. “We’re trying to bring a robust, stable manufacturing and stable product to those sectors.
“We’re trying to say, ‘We’ve got competent mass specs, we continue to evolve those, so now we’ve entered multi-sector, we’re going to continue to push that edge,’” he said. “We continue to drive sensitivity in mass range, all the things you do with mass spec. But if we can put energy into separating, we really can do something of putting those two together that might open a space up in the proteomics world that’s an unmet need.”

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