Bill Rich — the man who built a company around SELDI mass spec technology — does not care about mass specs. He also doesn’t care about protein sequencing, large core proteomics facilities, analytical chemists, or “third decimal point accuracy” resolution. So what does the CEO of Ciphergen, the company that pioneered the booming bio-marker market, care about?
“All we care about is the unmet need,” Rich told ProteoMonitor last month over coffee at the company’s Fremont, Calif. headquarters. “If we can find the unmet need, we would use an airplane to solve it.” Although there are clearly many unmet needs in science, Rich’s concept of the unmet need is very particular: what small-time biologists and physicians — rather than big lab chemists or mass spectrometrists — need in order to find what they are looking for. “We don’t want to compete on specs, on technology ‘A’ versus ‘B.’ We ask, ‘what’s your problem?’ and if we can solve it, we’re here,” Rich said.
Throughout the two-hour interview with ProteoMonitor and a tour of Ciphergen’s facilities, Rich spoke like a man who has spent years developing — and defending — this very particular philosophy of helping the biologist use tools that were previously seen as out of reach. From the “earthtones” dragonfly that his wife helped design for the Ciphergen logo, to the purposely unimpressive-looking SELDI box that he alternately referred to as a “mass chromatograph” and a “ProteinChip reader,” to his casual manner of speaking, Rich went out of his way to present himself and his business as the friendly, easy-to-use connection between proteomics techno-logies and biological problems. “Everything you hear [criticizing the SELDI system] is coming from mass spec people at protein core labs. We’re growing 100 percent a year not selling to proteomics labs,” Rich said in response to the suggestion that SELDI may not be able to keep up with the higher resolution mass spec offerings from competitors like Bruker and ABI. “The people we sell to are MD-PhDs who do rounds in the morning and research in the afternoon. They don’t even know how to spell mass spectrometry. They just think of it as a SELDI system from Ciphergen,” Rich said.
Just as Ciphergen was one of the first companies to venture into the biomarker business (see PM 9-5-03), it seems that it is also one of the pioneers in the approach that Rich calls “decentralized proteomics” — targeting the small-time biologist as a major marketing group. “My approach is to get [the technology] into the hands of biologists and researchers as fast as we can so we can implement it. There’s been this myth that if you’re not an analytical chemist you couldn’t possibly run a mass spec — you’re too stupid. So we had to hire these ‘stupid’ biologists and actually do it,” Rich said.
As in the case with biomarkers, several other major instrument companies now appear to be following Ciphergen’s lead. At the UBS Global Life Sciences Conference in New York this week, Applied Biosystems, Bruker Biosciences, Thermo Electron, Agilent Technologies, and Waters all specifically mentioned their desire to take on the small biologist market (see story, p. 1). Said Taia Ergueta, senior director of business development at Agilent, “A lot of focus has been on core lab scientists, but biologists have not been targeted by vendors to date. … the rate at which they buy into this and we sell to them is a big driver for us.”
For Rich, it’s not only a matter of selling technologies to biologists — it’s also a matter of proving that the biologists are using the technologies to make some sort of scientific advance. At the UBS conference, Rich emphasized this aspect of his strategy, claiming that “scientific publications drive market growth.” With his constant references to the 200 papers that have been published using Ciphergen systems, he said in the ProteoMonitor interview that he is banking on this connection. “Show me all the Science papers that [sequencing with high resolution mass specs] has produced,” Rich said. “I’ll show you Science paper after Science paper where we have produced new science from our work. That’s our goal — to produce discoveries, not just methods.”
Up until now, big discoveries for Ciphergen have mostly involved finding biomarkers — Rich is particularly proud of the HIV markers that David Ho at Rockefeller University found using ProteinChip and SELDI, and the ovarian cancer markers that Emanuel Petricoin and Lance Liotta found. But just at the time that Ciphergen’s competitors have begun to focus on biomarkers, Ciphergen is returning to an area that it had previously abandoned when it began its biomarker initiative in 2000: target validation.
Rich said that Ciphergen will focus on using protein interactions to do target validation and to do target interaction studies on biomarkers. The company’s strategy, which it is already actively pursuing, is to use what it calls Interaction Discovery Mapping to pull out proteins and protein complexes that interact with a particular target, such as a biomarker. IDM consists of immobilizing a target on both chips and beads, and then using SELDI to analyze the captured interacting proteins after placement on the ProteinChip. Rich claims that sensitivity and quantitation using this approach are strong, and that scientists can do in days interaction steps that other methods take months to do. Again, Ciphergen is mainly targeting ordinary biologists with this technology. “Biologists are already doing [interaction analysis] now with immunoprecipitation, gels, and blots. They just need better tools, and that’s our target.”
Considering the attention that scientists have recently been paying to protein interactions at conferences and in conversation (see PM 9-5-03), it seems that Rich has once again launched early on into a popular trend. For those looking to Ciphergen to predict the next big trend, Rich had this preview to offer: “It has become clear to me that proteomics is nothing more than a big purification problem. … I would look for us to be in more technologies that complement how one improves bioseparations. ... And what will we do with this? Our goal has always been first of all to be a tools business and then to leverage ourselves into the diagnostics space. If we’re lucky enough to be enabling, we could even leverage ourselves into a drug discovery space. But that’s a long way off.”