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GE to Acquire Amersham for $9.5B: Will Separations and Proteomics Stay?

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The announcement late last week that General Electric would acquire Amersham for a record £5.7 billion ($9.5 billion) instantly launched a wave of rumors that GE would divest Amersham Biosciences — particularly the 17 percent of Amersham sales that represents its protein separations business.

Yet despite all the hype, Amersham’s officials, insiders, and collaborators involved in proteomics and protein separations all expressed far more enthusiasm than apprehension over the deal. And according to a GE official, recent media reports that GE would in fact hold onto all of Amersham Biosciences were not without merit.

“Actually a lot has been said about the desirability of the combination in total — not only is the pharmaceutical diagnostic portion of Amersham’s business a particularly good fit with our existing diagnostics and life sciences business, it’s also a great new platform for where GE Med systems is hoping to go in the future,” GE spokesman Peter Stack said. When asked how protein separations and proteomics might fit in with GE’s vision, Stack emphasized, “GE sees all of Amersham as being a valuable addition to its Med business.” Andrew Carr, president of Amersham Biosciences, saw a deal with a Fortune 5 company as a positive move for his division. “I see this in some ways as a maturing of the life sciences market — a coming of age. We can take from GE some of the excellence they have in processes,” he said.

There are, of course, skeptics. “Reading in the press that GE would be keeping the whole business surprised me,” a former Amersham employee who now works for a competitor, and who preferred to remain anonymous, told ProteoMonitor. “I assumed that [GE] was going to spin out anything that wasn’t extremely profitable.” The employee added that GE was not a company known as being a risk-taker — and that it would be taking on a “huge risk” by keeping Biosciences. Still, “if they’ve got some managers who are willing to take on the risk, there’s actually huge potential in life sciences for growth,” he said.

In their statements regarding the acquisition, both GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, and Amersham CEO William Castell, who will become a vice chairman at GE and CEO of a new GE Healthcare Technologies division following the acquisition, emphasized personalized medicine as a place where Amersham Biosciences’ products could help GE.

Yet while this might be encouraging news to Amersham employees involved with producing analyte-specific reagents and DNA chips, there was little talk of how proteomics or protein separations might fit in with GE’s future plans. One current employee who works with proteomics at Amersham said that the GE acquisition was “probably a great opportunity” for his division, but that “it’s just too early to say.” Carr said that the protein separations and discovery systems businesses share many customers, and that separations could contribute to the development of new imaging agents for medical imaging.

At the HUPO Congress last week, the buzz on the street when news of the acquisition broke was not so much about whether Amersham’s protein programs would be sold, but about who would buy them. Invitrogen and Applied Biosystems were on HUPO attendees’ lips as potential buyers.

Reactions to the deal from Amersham’s collaborators were mixed. Thermo Electron’s ongoing proteomics collaboration with Amersham (see PM 2-17-03) figured prominently at the HUPO Congress, where the companies co-presented data obtained using a combination of Thermo and Amersham’s platforms to analyze human serum for the Human Plasma Proteome Project (see story, p. 1). The companies also presented a joint exhibition booth and joint promotional materials. Lester Taylor, Thermo’s global product marketing director, was non-committal this week about how the relationship would proceed in the future. “Obviously that’s difficult to tell long term in business relationships such as this, particularly involving an acquisition. But our plans are to proceed along the initial co-marketing agreement,” Taylor said. “Clearly there have been discussions with people at Amersham.” Taylor acknowledged that his division did not anticipate when it was making collaboration plans with Amersham in the recent months that such a dramatic acquisition would soon occur.

John Spreadbury, group sales and marketing director of Nonlinear Dynamics, which gave up its 2D gel imaging analysis software agreement with Amersham to Geneva Bioinformatics in July, but retains a collaborative deal with Amersham for 1D gel and array software, saw the deal as a “fantastic” opportunity for Nonlinear to strike up its own deals with GE — regardless of what happens to Amersham. “We’re about to release some awesome new technologies for 2D gel analysis — in the area of spot detection and the handling of multiplex gels — which will certainly dominate the market,” said Spreadbury, who is also CEO of the US division of the company. Spreadbury indicated that the acquisition will be a no-lose situation for Nonlinear: The company sees itself as being able to ride into its own deals with GE on Amersham’s coattails should the giant hold onto the protein separations and proteomics divisions of Amersham, or as snatching up a place in that part of the market should GE opt out.

Meanwhile, Nonlinear plans to plug its medical imaging and database products for potential integration into the Amersham Health part of the business at GE, Spreadbury said — perhaps providing a model for other companies in the market. “We’re very keen to talk to GE about this. … We’ve developed very awesome [imaging] noise modeling and removal technologies,” Spreadbury said. He added, “If GE sells off [Amersham’s] separations business, then, absolutely great — I think we’ll still pick up a share of that market. If they decide to keep it, then hopefully we can talk to GE about that.”

—KAM

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