Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies sells a bunch of stuff to biomedical researchers, but one market it has never tried to capture is the one for flow cytometers. These are common lab tools that can count and catalog large numbers of cells in a biological sample. They can be useful in many ways, including, say, looking to add up the number of certain white blood cells a patient produces when infected with HIV.
The big players who make these tools are firmly entrenched. Becton Dickinson, Beckman Coulter, and Millipore dominate a market worth an estimated $1.4 billion a year, which is still growing at an 8 percent annual clip. Now Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE) is on a mission to grab some market share with a first-of-its-kind tool it calls the Attune Acoustic Focusing Cytometer. I got an overview of the product and the business strategy behind it from Nicolas Barthelemy, the company’s president of cell systems.
The idea for the product has its roots at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which spun off Acoustic Cytometry Systems, a company Life Tech acquired in November 2008. The instrument is designed to work by channeling cells through a tube like any flow cytometer, with a laser-based detection device that measures the size and type of certain cells. But there’s one big difference. Current systems use water pressure to push cells through the detection point, while the Life Tech system uses a cuff that pumps in sound waves.
This means that scientists can dial up or dial down the sound pressure if they want to speed up or slow down the flow of cell. If you’re looking for an extremely rare kind of cell in the blood that might be an early predictor of disease, you could slow down the cell flow so that the laser is more likely to spot it. Or if the experiment needs to churn through and compare diluted water samples that may be contaminated, the new tool can speed up and handle the greater throughput, Barthelemy says. Mike Olszowy, head of flow cytometry at Life Technologies, told GenomeWeb Daily News last month that the new tool will be able to pull about 200,000 cells in approximately one minute—which can take 15 minutes on a traditional flow cytometer.
Barthelemy says Life Tech is hopeful this tool, and the consumable chemicals needed to operate it, will become popular enough to generate $100 million in annual sales by its third year on the market. At least in the beginning, Life Tech hopes to market the tool to scientists who don’t already use flow cytometers, offering them a product that is compact enough to fit on a lab bench, and costs less than $100,000, making it tens of thousands of dollars cheaper than the competition, Barthelemy says.
“We’ve broken the paradigm,” Barthelemy says.
The initial strategy isn’t to take on the big players on their home turf in the centralized, specialty labs that perform most flow cytometry experiments, Barthelemy says. The Life Tech tool is only set up to examine six different colors to tag different cell types. That’s less than some of the bigger systems that can offer 12 parameters simultaneously, he says. While some users like the greater flexibility that comes with more parameters, Life Tech’s research found that 80 percent of users only want to examine two to six different cell types at once.
The product is being aimed at both academic and industrial researchers, with a formal product introduction during the second quarter, Barthelemy says. He wouldn’t say who has placed orders for the new machine, although the company tried to create some “buzz” through postings on Twitter and YouTube that described the new machine when Life Tech offered scientists a peek at the tool last month at the American Society for Cell Biology conference in San Diego.
It’s still early days for a new product like this—way too early to say whether this could someday be an earnings driver for Life Tech. But it definitely offers some insights into how Life Tech intends to market an innovative product in a big, competitive market.
“We don’t have any instruments like this yet,” Barthelemy says. “You want to pick a beachhead where you can win, where you have a real value proposition.” He adds: “We needed a disruptive innovation.”