As Amersham, PerkinElmer, Beckman Coulter, and others push aggressively into the proteomics reagents and instruments market, smaller players hold on to their niche with specialized products.
One example is Proxeon Biosystems, a new Danish firm with old roots: The company continues the business of Protana Engineering, a wholly-owned subsidiary of MDS Proteomics that was bought out by its management at the end of last year.
Protana Engineering, which provided hardware for protein mass spectrometry, such as nanoelectrospray equipment, was itself only created in 2000, after Toronto-based MDS Proteomics acquired Protana. The software products and proteomics research service arm of Protana became part of MDSP’s drug discovery efforts, according to Ole Vorm, who co-founded Protana in 1997 with Matthias Mann, and who is now CEO of Proxeon.
Proxeon, based in Odense, is planning eventually to go back to its roots, offering not only hardware but also research services and maybe software: “Essentially, it’s a re-establishment of the old Protana,” Vorm said. Together with Proxeon’s COO Thomas Graf and an external passive investor with “no ties to the biotech community,” he bought out the company last November. MDSP, he said, no longer saw hardware sales as part of its business.
One of the stated aims of the 10-person company, displayed prominently on its web site, is to introduce at least one new proteomics-related product every month this year — at least on average, said Vorm. So far, these have included a high-pressure vessel for packing and loading samples onto nano-bore LC columns, a perforated 96-well microtiter-plate for high-throughput in-gel digestion, and a glass tissue homogenizer for small biopsy volumes. Moreover, the company just acquired the rights to an “electron gun” to create a collimated beam of electrons for electron capture dissociation, developed by Roman Zubarev at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, which it is planning to develop into a product for Fourier Transform mass spectrometry by the end of the year or early next year.
Proxeon also offers robots for proteomics applications — originally developed by Protana, but never marketed before — as customized solutions, but Vorm acknowledged that stiff competition has arisen in this area over the last few years.
Having unique products, and the Internet to sell them, are the two main ingredients that help the company stand up against its competitors with their armies of salespeople. Also, it can afford to develop products for niche markets that larger firms might not consider worth the effort, and do it fast. “There are lots of smaller devices, chemicals, little things that large companies don’t ... provide,” said Vorm, and “we can move much more quickly.”
But the company sees other opportunities than selling hardware, and is considering raising money to be able to fund them, while planning to grow to about 40 people over time. “Certainly there is a big need for software in proteomics,” said Vorm, citing database search engines and proteomics data storage systems as examples. Proxeon is also planning to establish labs and offer proteomics research services, primarily to medium-sized companies. While large contracts with big pharma are hard to come by these days, “the deals in the range of a few million dollars to do some very focused work on a particular project … I think are still around,” said Vorm.