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PacBio's New CEO Talks Priorities at JP Morgan Conference

By Edward Winnick

SAN FRANCISCO (GenomeWeb News) – Pacific Biosciences' new CEO Michael Hunkapiller addressed investors at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference Wednesday, offering some insight into the firm's priorities and the reason behind the change at the top of the firm.

Hunkapiller assumed the CEO role just last week, replacing Hugh Martin, who had led the company since 2004. Hunkapiller, a well-known industry vet who previously served as president and general manager of Applied Biosystems before becoming a general partner at venture capital firm Alloy Ventures, explained that the change in leadership was due to the current stage of development of PacBio.

He said there "wasn't a problem; the company evolved," adding that Martin and the board agreed that it was time to bring in a new CEO with a different skill set. He didn't mention any of PacBio's recent struggles on the stock market — shares fell 82 percent over the course of 2011 — or the shortfall in backlog orders at the end of the second quarter as factors.

Hunkapiller, who has been on PacBio's board since 2005 and recently was named executive chairman, said his primary job is to figure out where the firm's technology fits in the market and focus on the areas that make the most sense.

He also listed the firm's priorities as improving the RS system's reliability and performance, developing product enhancements, providing full solutions for customers, and focusing on key applications.

Hunkapiller laid out a picture of PacBio's market opportunities across a wide swath of applications and said that by 2014 the firm's addressable opportunities will be around $3.6 billion. Within those market opportunities he pointed out a primary focus on whole-genome sequencing and assembly of microbes, targeted resequencing, and detection of base modifications as key applications.

In addition, Hunkapiller stressed the need for PacBio to compete in areas where it would most help its research customers, rather than trying to compete against technologies that are already better at certain functions. He added that partnering would be an important strategy for the company, particularly on the front and back ends.

Asked about the firm's plans for the clinical market, Hunkapiller noted that PacBio's technology is well-suited for clinical applications and pointed to the company's alliance with Gen-Probe, initiated in early 2010, but he stressed that it is a longer-term opportunity. He said right now the focus is on core applications and providing complete workflows.

Company officials didn't provide an update on any new customers for the RS system during the fourth quarter. CFO Susan Barnes noted, however, that PacBio is sticking with its earlier timeline of releasing the new C2 chemistry this quarter. She said early-access customers have the chemistry, which significantly increases read length, already.

PacBio finished its third quarter with $194 million in cash, and following a recent layoff of 130 employees it now has a burn rate of $20 million per quarter, company officials noted during a breakout session.

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