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Illumina would be nuts to sell today. While the concerns about budget constraints at the National Institutes of Health are real—and most scientists who buy Illumina machines depend on NIH funding—that customer base is just where the story begins for Illumina. Future markets are potentially much bigger. If newborns start getting their genomes sequenced in large numbers, and Illumina can capture 10 percent of the addressable market over time, that segment alone is worth $3.5 billion, Peterson wrote. If cancer patients routinely get their full genomes sequenced instead of getting a hodgepodge of specific diagnostic tests, Illumina could pull in $2.5 billion by capturing one-tenth of that available market. If pharmaceutical companies routinely start sequencing genomes of patients in clinical trials to enable more personalized medicine, and Illumina gets that same 10 percent market share, that will be worth $240 million. Taken together, those three markets could add $6 billion in revenues—about six-times more than the amount of revenue Illumina generated in the past year, Peterson said. Illumina has resisted so far, calling the offer “grossly inadequate.”
Bottom line, this is a miserly offer for a company with market leading technology, in a market that is only just now starting to head into adolescence.
Reason #2. Illumina’s operations would likely flounder at Roche.
Sometimes it makes sense for a company to get acquired when the existing management team has burned out, or gotten to a transition point where it needs the expertise or greater resources of an acquirer. That’s not the case with Illumina. CEO Jay Flatley has been on the job since 1999, and guided the company through its rise to pre-eminence. He’s 59 years old, and he’s surrounded by plenty of talent on the board and executive team. Flatley personally holds a 1.7 percent ownership stake in Illumina stock, so you could say he’s motivated to make Illumina succeed.
Compare that with Roche’s record in the genetic analysis tools business. Back in 2007, Roche bought 454 Life Sciences. Founder Jonathan Rothberg promptly left and founded a groundbreaking rival in the DNA sequencing business—Ion Torrent Systems. And what became of 454 once it was part of Roche? Not much. How about NimbleGen Systems, the maker of microarray technologies? Have you much about that system since it was absorbed into the belly of Roche five years ago?
Any company that hopes to integrate genomics into the diagnostic and pharmaceutical business is going to have to have extreme determination, focus, technical chops, stamina, and money. Roche clearly has some very smart people in its organization—it bought South San Francisco-based Genentech in 2009. But coordinating so many people from different disciplines, at any company the size of Roche with 80,000 employees worldwide, is asking for trouble. Creating the future of genomic diagnostics will take the focus, brainpower, and determination of a leaner organization concentrated in one place, like Illumina.
Reason #3: Illumina’s innovation edge would be dulled.
Illumina has been remarkably driven to hold onto its market leadership, and has continued to make its instruments better, faster, and cheaper to fend off rivals like Life Tech, PacBio, and Complete Genomics. Oxford Nanopore was the latest upstart to wow industry analysts a couple weeks ago at a conference, but sure enough, Illumina had the foresight to invest in that company three years ago. People at all those small organizations know their company’s future depends on their efforts, and they have a chance to do something historic. But for people who work at Roche, they know their company will be fine whether some Illumina division thrives or not. There’s no way the average salaried worker can compete with the fire in the belly you’ll find at these startups. Rothberg told me last fall that he couldn’t possibly give out some basic information like his R&D budget, because that would be giving away too much to his competitors. His team is working so feverishly that “this is like 1948 and we’re the Israelis,” he said. I can’t imagine people at a Roche/Illumina division working with that kind of burning intensity to keep their innovative edge.
Reason #4. Anti-trust concerns start becoming real if Roche gets Illumina.
You have to wonder if anti-trust regulators might look askance at a single organization building a dominant position in cancer drugs, diagnostics, and now genomic analysis instruments. My guess is that this would probably pass muster with regulators, because no company has a true monopoly on any of these industries. But it’s conceivable that a company the size of Roche could use unfair “bundling” techniques that would hurt DNA sequencing competitors and consumers.
Reason #5. The innovation community would be harmed.
This is the one argument you rarely hear, but it needs to be raised. Illumina is an anchor of the San Diego biotech hub, and one of the great stories of American technological innovation of the past decade. It employs 2,200 people in positions that provide work with meaning, good wages, good benefits, and relative stability in a volatile industry. Roche said some things in January about how it wants to establish an “Applied Science” division in San Diego, but it wouldn’t be the same as Illumina. If this deal goes through, it would weaken the San Diego biotech community, and American competitiveness.
For these reasons, I’m hopeful that Illumina and its shareholders will weather this storm. I’m willing to bet that five years from now, when sequencing is part of mainstream medicine, people will chuckle over memories that Roche once tried to pull a fast one, and buy Illumina on the cheap.
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