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Ambion VP Bruce Leander on Life Under ABI

Name: Bruce Leander
Title: vice president/general manager, Ambion
Background: President, Ambion — 1998-2006
Vice president, product center, molecular biology reagents, Pharmacia Biotech — 1996-1998
MBA, University of Wisconsin — 1996
Vice president, international marketing, molecular biology reagent division, Pharmacia Biotech — 1994-1996
Director, international marketing, reagent division, Pharmacia Biotech — 1992-1994
Vice president, sales and marketing, Genosys Biotechnologies — 1989-1991
Manager, marketing and business development, Biotx — 1988-1989
MS, zoology, Texas Tech University — 1979
BSc, biology, Springfield College — 1976

About a year ago, Applied Biosystems acquired the research products division of Ambion for $273 million in cash in a bid to fill out its consumables lineup (see RNAi News, 1/5/2006).
Under the deal, ABI picked up Ambion's RNA stabilizing, synthesizing, handling, isolating, storing, detecting, and quantifying technologies and products, including its microRNA and siRNA reagents.
The money from the deal, meanwhile, gave Ambion founder Matt Winkler the resources to start up a new company, Asuragen, which houses Ambion’s services and diagnostics divisions.
This week, RNAi News spoke with Bruce Leander, Ambion’s former president and now vice president and general manager of the ABI subsidiary, about the integration of the companies.
How has the integration gone thus far, and where is Ambion now that it’s a part of ABI?
From my perspective, the integration has gone extremely well. That’s because it’s a good fit between the two companies. [There are] very few product overlaps, and we’ve got complementary strengths: AB has always been very strong on the instrument side, Ambion has always been strong on the kits and reagents side, and we have common application area interests and common customers. We saw the fit when we were looking at the different companies that were interested in acquiring Ambion, and a number of us from the very beginning liked the Applied Biosystems fit the best. And it has worked out well for both companies.
You can look around the industry and see the ones that haven’t worked very well, either from an employee standpoint or from a branding standpoint, where all of a sudden it seems the company [that was acquired] is gone — it’s been absorbed, you really don’t see it within the larger company’s product offerings, and in some cases you wonder why they bought them at all.
Is Ambion still in Austin, Texas?
Is the idea that it will remain there?
Yeah. It’s less expensive to make things in Austin than it is in California, so I think this will remain an AB site for some time, if not permanently.
Were there any significant layoffs after the acquisition?
Almost none. You could count them on one hand, which is pretty amazing. More than 300 people [from Ambion remain with ABI].
Jumping off of what you said before, Dharmacon, after being bought by Fisher, seems to still be Dharmacon, still be autonomous. Then you think about Sequitur, which disappeared almost when it was [bought] by Invitrogen. I get the sense that ABI is taking the former approach. Is that right?
Yeah. The [Ambion] brand is really strong, so they don’t want to do anything to disrupt that. I’d say we’re more autonomous than anything else. To customers it should appear that very little has changed at Ambion — the phone numbers are the same and they still get us when they call in.
We’re integrating the parts that need to be integrated like sales, like looking at common R&D projects where one plus one equals three. So we’re integrating the parts that make sense and we’re leaving alone the parts that make sense.
As autonomous as Ambion is, being under the ABI umbrella certainly has to have certain benefits. Any jump to mind?
The obvious one: hundreds of sales people. And a larger R&D organization allows us to spread our wings a little bit more and get involved in projects that have to do with platforms and systems. The combination of real-time plus what Ambion does on the gene-expression side is very powerful. That’s good for Ambion and good for AB.
It’s getting tougher out there in the RNA space. We have a T-shirt we made eight or nine years ago that says: RNA, the other nucleic acid. Now, it’s the nucleic acid where all the interest is. It’s getting harder and harder to compete, so it’s nice to have an AB with you competing against some of the larger companies. Fisher is in there, Invitrogen is in there, Promega is in there, GE is in there. There are a lot of large companies that have a lot of resources behind them that are competing in the gene-expression or -analysis area, so it’s worked out well for us to be a part of AB.
When you talk about having the ability to spread your wings and start exploring areas you might not have been able to when Ambion was on its own, can you comment further on that?
Within RNAi, the biggest advantage for us in combination with AB is linking the TaqMan assays with the products and services that we offer for RNAi. That combination is very powerful.
Where is Ambion looking next in terms of new avenues to explore in the RNAi space? Companies like Dharmacon have started getting into RNAi therapeutics with collaborators. Is that something Ambion would consider?
Of course, everybody is interested in [RNAi drugs]. That’s the endgame for RNAi. All we’re saying at this point is [that] we’re keeping our options open.
I don’t know if anybody knows exactly where they’re going with RNAi next. It is still growing, it still holds a lot of promise, so I think you’re going to see the top three or four companies continue to launch new products or services that help researchers in that area. As [the RNAi space] begins to mature — and it’s not dying, it’s not going away, it’s not declining, it continues to grow — those three or four companies, I think, can adequately serve the interests of researchers. Luckily, we’re one of them.
Is it a matter, at this point, of fine-tuning the reagents and things you can offer, or are there new facets to RNAi that are revealing themselves?
There are none that I can comment on right now, but generally I can say that as new elements within the RNAi area develop, we will be very interested in pursuing those. So whether it’s on the transfection side, whether it’s on the specificity side, the array side — who knows? But we’ll be there, and I think AB is positioned perfectly … to take advantage of platforms to serve that market.
What about microRNAs?
Same thing. [It’s] growing, [and there is] lots of interest. We were first to offer commercial products in that area, and we’ll continue to look for incremental advances or improvements.
We touched on the benefits of having a big company behind you. Do you see any downsides to not being as independent as you were?
That’s a good question. There are no downsides that I can see. Things are different when you work within a larger company than they are within a smaller company. But I would say that when you look at the balance of benefits versus any disadvantages, it’s clearly weighted toward the benefits.
So it sounds like ABI is letting you guys do your thing and taking an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ kind of approach.
It’s a lot like you said between Fisher and Dharmacon. Dharmacon is a quality company, and when you find those really strong brands and you find companies that are very strong in niches, I think it’s the best thing … to look for those areas where you can provide a benefit to the combination of the two companies, but more often than not just let it keep going.
Are there any ties with Asuragen? Might we see some collaborative efforts between Ambion and Asuragen?
There might be. I’m not sure there would be any more than with any other companies. But we share the facility here — they’re a separate, distinct company, but they’re still in the same space they were before we made the split. So we interact with them where it makes sense and we still have some collaborations riding right now. But there is no huge deal in the works between Applied Biosystems and Asuragen.

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