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PROTEOMICS PIONEER: Keith Williams Serves Up Proteomics Technology for the Masses



Position: CEO Proteome Systems

Sydney, Australia

Age: 53

Prior Experience: Founder and Director of Australian Proteomics Analysis Facility, Professor of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University, Sydney

Six years ago, before anything resembling a proteomics industry existed, Keith Williams’ scientific papers acted as bellwethers. With coauthors including Denis Hochstrasser and Ron Appel (who have since founded GeneProt), Ian Humphery-Smith (a founder of the Human Proteome Organization), and Andrew Gooley and Marc Wilkins (now CSO and executive VP of bioinformatics, respectively, at Proteome Systems), Williams published papers with titles such as “Why all proteins expressed by a genome should be identified and how to do it,” and “From proteins to proteomes: large scale protein identification by 2-dimensional electrophoresis and amino acid analysis.”

Ironically, Williams’ current mission—to build an industrial-scale proteome-analysis technology pipeline—is aimed at demystifying the work of his pioneering colleagues to make the techniques available to all. In a recent interview, he compared the academic protein-analysis network to surgeons who obfuscate their methods in order to keep the field elite. “Our view is that this is a big deal and everyone should get access to it,” Williams said. “The real progress in this field is probably not going to come from the experts, but from the scientists.”

With Proteome Systems’ help, he said, scientists won’t have to waste time figuring out what solutions to use. “They should be able to buy a kit [that] works.”

Proteomics is an “explosion” that needs tools urgently, Williams said. Once his team finishes constructing the platform in the next several months, it will sell it in partnership with distributors and manufacturers such as Shimadzu/Kratos, Microfab, Millipore, and Sigma, as well as apply it to drug target discovery in-house.

Of potential collaborators Williams added, “Anyone who doesn’t buy into the vision is going to be hard to work with. We have a very complete vision as to how the bits and pieces fit together, so we want to work with people who get [that] and understand the complexity and breadth of it.”

It was late 1998 when Williams, then director of the Australian Proteome Analysis Facility at Macquarie University in Sydney, lost his patience waiting for additional funding for his technology development work. “I had half a dozen people but no capacity to keep them,” he recalled.

The university was providing funds for APAF’s facility and equipment, but not for expanding the staff. BioRad, APAF’s industrial partner, was too steeped in its own cautious culture to move quickly, Williams contended. To continue constructing the high-throughput platform he envisioned, Williams needed corporate backing. When Macquarie dragged its feet, he picked up and left. His lab followed him.

Williams characterized his new venture as “an Applera-type company,” seemingly an ambitious comparison for the head of a 70-person organization to make. However, Williams defended the analogy this way: In Sydney and at a manufacturing facility in Boston—20,000 square feet overall—Proteome Systems engineers are building an assembly-line system of integrated instruments and tools, akin to the Applied Biosystems side of Applera. Proteome Systems, along with partners Shimadzu and Sigma, are designing the platform to handle sample prep through mass spectrometry data analysis. ProteomIQ, as the platform is known, will hit the market later this year.

On a tour of his site, where mass spectrometers, protein extraction tools, and proprietary 2D gel membranes formatted in the form of 96-well plates are in stages of assembly and testing, Williams proclaimed, “We want to take the space and we think the space is empty at the moment.” All but dismissing the technologies that, a mile away, APAF is marketing (and for which he, as patent-holder, still receives some royalties), Williams predicted that Proteome Systems would corner the market, which he guessed could absorb several thousand of his platforms.

The Celera portion of his business, Williams said, takes the form of Proteome Systems’ in-house drug-target discovery efforts. Although it might seem Williams is abetting his competition by mass-producing his proteomics platform, he doesn’t seem worried: “You can give someone a Formula 1 racing car and put them in it, but they won’t win the race.” — Adrienne J. Burke

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