When the 2D gel image-analysis software of Nonlinear Dynamics and Amersham Biosciences parted ways last week, the parting made way for a new alliance between Geneva Bioinformatics and Amersham. In the end, everyone won — except, perhaps, Amersham’s future customers.
The reshuffling, announced in a series of press releases last week, meant that Amersham got an exclusive license to sell GeneBio’s Melanie software as part of Amersham’s ImageMaster integrated 2D gel imaging analysis software — a type of license that Nonlinear, of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, was never willing to provide. GeneBio, and its partner Swiss Bioinformatics Institute, scored a “software coup” (see BioInform, 7-19-03) by getting the opportunity to link up with Amersham’s impressive sales force. Nonlinear kept its 1D gel and array software agreements with Amersham intact, while scoring a deal with PerkinElmer last month to develop a new 2D analysis product and retaining its sales autonomy over its Phoretix and Progenesis software, once part of ImageMaster 2D and Amersham’s Ettan software, respectively.
Even Amersham’s current ImageMaster customers won, as they will now have the option either to continue separately upgrading their software with Nonlinear — who will provide support and upgrades to ImageMaster owners despite the change — or to move on to Amersham’s next release, ImageMaster 5.0, which incorporates Melanie. But new customers looking to buy an integrated 2D gel analysis system from Amersham for the first time would be advised to approach the purchase with consideration, according to some 2D gel software users.
“I think that people who would go to Amersham and say ‘What can you sell me for image-analysis software?’ they should have an idea in their mind of what their needs are beforehand,” said Kelvin Lee, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and the director of a proteomics program at Cornell University (see article, p. 7). An individual with a small budget might prefer the simpler Melanie, while someone buying for a core facility might want to forego Amersham and GeneBio’s offerings and turn to Nonlinear. “The Melanie software is not intended to compete with the very highest levels of Nonlinear’s software,” Lee said.
Although Melanie is a “very mature package” that Lee still prefers to use for small scale projects, it is not as sophisticated as Nonlinear’s high-end products, and comes with fewer options. “Nonlinear has packages at different price levels that have different levels of features and sophistication,” Lee said. “Melanie doesn’t operate at that scale or that level.”
But Amersham executives said ImageMaster customers have much to gain from the switchover. “In the new release of ImageMaster, customers will benefit from enhanced speed and accuracy in generating high-quality biological data quickly, and from systems testing with Amersham Biosciences’ wide range of proteomics hardware and chemistries,” said Richard Cumming, vice president of product management in proteomics at Amersham, in an e-mail to ProteoMonitor.
Nonlinear CEO Will Dracup pointed out, however, that his company has eight products for 2D gel-analysis software, compared to Melanie’s one. This breadth of offerings benefits the customers, according to Dracup, since it provides them with more options that they can tailor to their specific needs. It also made exclusive licensing of so many products an attractive prize for a company like Amersham — and an extremely unattractive one for Nonlinear, he said. “Everyone would love to have an exclusive license with Nonlinear,” Dracup said. “We are not willing to do that.”
In addition to expanded sales options, Dracup said R&D also made exclusivity unattractive to Nonlinear. “If you only have one customer that you supply to, it’s very difficult to keep your products refreshed in the marketplace and to reinvest money,” he said.
Dracup added that he can see why GeneBio might not feel as hampered by an exclusive deal as Nonlinear did. “Read between the lines,” he said. “Melanie has 400 users, we have 8,000. Maybe they needed the deal a lot more than we did. And signing an exclusive contract maybe suits them if their sales are poor.”
One reason for the success of Nonlinear, according to Dracup, is the company’s “excellent relationships” with customers. Christoph Borchers, faculty director of the proteomics core facility at the University of North Carolina, offered support for this assertion. “A guy from Nonlinear lives across the street and helps us — with this kind of complicated system, you need to have good contact,” he said. He also pointed to the software’s “warping capability” — its ability to line up different gels and accurately compare them — as a big plus, as well as its overall breadth of features.
Borchers said his enthusiasm for Nonlinear’s products won’t be affected by the split with Amersham. He already creates his own customized link system between the Amersham 2D gel hardware that he uses and Nonlinear’s imaging software, and does not see any reason to switch to a pre-packaged system from one company, particularly not one that includes Melanie. “Even the later version from Melanie is very behind what Nonlinear is offering,” he said.
Melanie, though, is not without supporters in the proteomics community. According to Lee, the bells and whistles of which Nonlinear is so proud — its more complex algorithms and visualization tools, for example — sometimes get in the way. “If there’s a grad student who uses proteomics in a project which might involve 10 gels, and I want him to pay a lot of attention to the quality of the data and not to rely on algorithms, then Melanie might be more appropriate,” Lee said.
Denis Hochstrasser, chairman of the department of clinical pathology at Geneva University Hospital and one of the founders of GeneBio, also said that customers who use Melanie cited the integrated links that Melanie has to the SwissProt database and Expasy server as benefits compared with Nonlinear’s software. “I’m not saying that [Nonlinear] does not have any of that, but it’s not totally integrated the way it is with Melanie,” he said.