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Waters Heads Back into Spotlight With Goal of Releasing Show-Stealing Instruments in 2004

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With Micromass finally fully merged into the company and “big plans” for what it hopes will be a series of blockbuster product releases in 2004, Waters is looking to re-emerge into the spotlight in the coming months as “a bigger player in proteomics and protein characteri-zation.”

The company hopes to do this mainly by more aggressively integrating its HPLC, mass spec, chemistry, and software products, Brian Murphy, Waters’ corporate communications manager, told ProteoMonitor during an afternoon visit to the company’s headquarters last week.

Despite its positioning as the leading single company in HPLC and one of the two top companies in life sciences mass spec sales, Waters until now has been relatively reserved when it comes to publicity, especially when compared with some of the giants with which it competes, such as Applied Biosystems, Thermo Electron, and Agilent. “I guess we are a little quiet,” Murphy acknowledged. Part of this reserved attitude seems to relate to the company’s sense of history — Murphy took ProteoMonitor through a complete outline of the company’s historical development before he even mentioned its latest products — and to its relatively recent climb from a pure chromatography company to a larger, more diverse instruments company.

Founded in 1958 by chromatography guru James Waters (now 81 years old and CEO of the Marlborough, Mass.-based drug discovery company Cetek), the company focused solely on chromatography until it acquired thermal analysis company TA Instruments in 1996. The acquisition of Micromass came through in 1997, followed by Rheometrics Scientific in 2002, and Creon Lab Control this year.

But Waters is still a chromatography company at heart — HPLC products account for over 60 percent of the company’s total business, and all of these products are still made at its Milford, Mass. headquarters in a huge, old-fashioned-looking manufacturing facility located directly beneath the company offices. “It is our core competency to make these products here — we don’t think they could be made as well elsewhere in the world,” Murphy said.

Building on this core compe-tency, Murphy said that a new HPLC product, set to be unveiled at Pittcon in March (see PM 10-24-03), is “going to change the name of the game” and “raise the bar” for the industry. While Murphy wouldn’t give details as to what the instrument will look like, he said that the new HPLC would address an en-tirely new niche in the market rather than being marketed as a replacement product for Waters’ other HPLC offerings. The company hopes it will steal the show. “We’re looking to win an award at Pittcon,” Murphy said.

Also to be unveiled at Pittcon will be details on Waters’ efforts to integrate its products into a systems approach, as well as the company’s strategy for both integrating the products from the newly acquired data management company, Creon, into its chromatography and mass spec platforms, and for initiating further software development. “Right now we have chromatography software that does some mass spec, and mass spec software that does some chromatography,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep this separate — scientists expect more integration, and I think you’ll see that take place,” Murphy said.

Integration has been the name of the game for Waters since 2001, when the company began a new R&D initiative to develop a pipeline of integrated products with “next generation protein analytical capabilities,” said Robert Pfeifer, vice president of life sciences R&D.

An off-shoot of this ongoing project was the establishment of a six-person division in mid-2002 dedicated solely to producing high-end consumables for mass spec, such as the NanoEase column for nanoscale separations released at ASMS in June. “High quality consumables is a weakness we were frustrated by ... and it’s a hinge point for pharma,” Pfeifer said. “It’s critical to making a half-million dollar instrument work.”

The end goal of the R&D initiative, Pfeifer said, will be the more complete integration of separations with mass spec — a feature that he indicated will play out with the release of the new Q-TOF at ASMS 2004 in May. “We wouldn’t expect a new Q-TOF to arise without well-integrated sample preparation,” Pfeifer said.

Pfeifer also noted that full integration would be particularly useful to researchers involved in the biomarker discovery process, which he said faced a major reproducibility challenge that could be partly solved by dependence upon a single company to provide the tools for each part of the process.

As to whether Waters might expand from instrument sales into biomarker discovery itself, Pfeifer left the door open, but emphasized that for now, “it’s up to our users to do this.”

Murphy said additionally that “many [integrated] systems you’ll see from us next year” will be customizable for a particular application. An example he gave was the customization that Micromass already offers for mass specs used for therapeutic drug monitoring. In that case, customized HPLC would also be offered along with the mass spec. Customized systems for proteomics applications would be another example. Details were not yet available. “As we get closer to Pittcon, this will all unfold,” Murphy said.

But it will not be until the release of the new Q-TOF at ASMS — upon which Waters is depending to pull it back into the quadrupole market — that the company will see how its future in mass spec is likely to unfold.

“The Q-TOF is going to be a world-beater,” Murphy said. “We have a lot at stake with that product and we realize that — we realize that we have to be head and shoulders above the rest.”

— KAM

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