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As RNAi Technology Continues to Cook, Will Dharmacon Emerge as the Hottest?


Three years after RNA interference was named Science's breakthrough of the year, the market for the gene-silencing technology has only heated up -- and with it the competition among reagent providers as new companies pop up and industry giants lumber onto the field.

But the competition appears to be healthy for at least one company, Dharmacon. The firm continues to sign deals for its RNAi products with high-profile companies and institutes and is preparing to announce the largest siRNA deal in its history as it expands its staff with a newly created director of marketing position to meet new challenges.

An early mover in the field of RNAi reagents, Dharmacon has had its work cut out for it in recent years competing for market share against some of the biggest names in the life sciences sector.

In late 2003, Sequitur was bought by Invitrogen in an effort to expand its RNAi product line to include modified siRNAs (see RNAi News, 11/7/2003). In February, Sigma-Aldrich said it was acquiring Proligo in response to customer demand for gene-knockdown products (see RNAi News, 2/18/2005). Meanwhile, companies such as Ambion, Qiagen, and Promega have maintained their presence with a steady flow of new RNAi products and services, and numerous new entrants to the market continue to crop up.

Dharmacon has had some help, however, as it works to maintain its edge against these and other rivals. Early last year, the company was snapped up by Fisher Scientific for $80 million in cash in a deal that provided Dharmacon, which became a wholly owned subsidiary, with a significant boost in marketing muscle (see RNAi News, 2/13/2004).

Since then, Dharmacon has released its siGenome siRNA collection, which targets the entire human genome, and its siArray RFT siRNA libraries, which are designed to be used in a reverse-transfection format. The company has also found a road to the Asian market by signing on GE Healthcare as its exclusive distributor in Japan, while benefiting from the European marketing presence of Perbio, another recent Fisher Scientific acquisition.

Additionally, Dharmacon has expanded its siRNA reagent supply relationships with Bayer Pharmaceuticals and Wyeth, and signed a deal to provide its RNAi technology to Genentech for drug discovery and development.

Most recently, Dharmacon signed a deal to provide London-based charity Cancer Research UK with siRNA libraries for use in its research efforts. Dharmacon said this week that it would initially provide Cancer Research UK with libraries targeting protein kinase genes and associated pathways for use by scientists studying signal transduction, protein phosphorylation, secretory pathways, and biochemical regulatory mechanisms.

"Our initial efforts over the past 18 months using retroviral vector RNAi showed us that we need more efficient and reliable gene silencing to achieve higher penetrance in our screens," Julian Downward, principal scientist at Cancer Research UK's Signal Transduction Laboratory, said in a statement. "We now have had success in pilot studies using high-throughput siRNA oligonucleotide assays. If [our studies are] successful, we hope to extend the screening to much larger siRNA libraries."

While the Cancer Research UK deal is a significant one for Dharmacon, the company is about to announce one of its most important to date, according to Bill Marshall, executive vice president of research and operations and Dharmacon site manager.

"Within the next two weeks, you'll see what is actually the largest deal that we've ever done with a partner in the area of large collections of siRNAs," he told RNAi News this week. He declined to provide additional details on the arrangement, but confirmed that it is with an industrial partner.

To Marshall, Dharmacon's recent deals, as well as the one to be announced, stem from the company's efforts to grow along with the RNAi reagent market.

Director of Marketing
As Dharmacon continues to make strides in the RNAi sector, it's put out feelers for a director of marketing, a newly created position for the Colorado-based company.

The responsibilities for this senior level position include:

  • Marketing activities of the company, including developing marketing plans;
  • Conducting feasibility and marketing research studies;
  • Suggesting changes in strategy, products, or services; and
  • Promoting the company's products and services to customers, partners, and the scientific community
Dharmacon job listing

"The ability to bring … technology to the broad market is extremely important to us," he said. "What we want to do is ensure that we can bring really robust technologies to the field. To do that, we definitely need to expand." He declined to provide figures for how many employees the company has and how many it hopes to add in the near term.

However, according to recent job listings, Dharmacon is looking for at least seven new staffers, one of whom will fill a newly created director of marketing position. Other jobs Dharmacon is looking to fill include product manager, research scientist, field application scientist, and application laboratory scientist.

Marshall said that Dharmacon's efforts to grow are in part due to its desire to become a global player. "In addition to general growth within North America, we are also aggressively expanding geographically around the world," he said, citing the deal with GE Healthcare and coordinated efforts with Perbio's European sales team. "We really want to bring … these technologies to the rest of the planet.

"Right now, we're looking at all the other areas of the Far East to be able to drive [our] technology into areas where we've had not that much presence," he added.

Marshall downplayed the role that pressure from Dharmacon's rivals are playing on the company's growth, but noted that the competition is not ignored.

"It's clear that any time you have a cutting-edge technology [such as RNAi] … other people are going to take advantage of that," he said. "Do I think about competitors? Yes, but we are focused on the products and the things we can do to advance the science."

As far as Dharmacon's broader strategy, Marshall noted that he has taken a page from the playbook of marketing consultant Geoffrey Moore, who discusses marketing high-tech products to the so-called pragmatist and innovator markets in his book Crossing the Chasm.

"The innovators are the early adapters [who] are excited about a technology … and want to help develop it," Marshall said. "The largest segment in the market, though, is the pragmatist market. This is a group that is a little more conservative -- they are looking for references from the innovators that say, 'The technology is very useful.' They also desire a more complete product."

According to Marshall, the RNAi reagent market is moving from one dominated by innovators to one dominated by pragmatists as the technology becomes more accepted and refined.

"As we see the market maturing and developing, we want to address the needs of the pragmatist market … [and] we want to be able to deliver very effect messages so that people use the technology effectively," he said.

-- DM

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