CONVERSATION | Greg Lucier on determinism in drug development at Invitrogen Interview by Kevin Davies
January 12, 2004 | Greg Lucier, the former GE Medical Systems executive who took the helm at Invitrogen six months ago as president and CEO, jokes, "I am not responsible for anything bad that happened in the past, but anything good, I'll take credit for that!" He is not resting on his laurels; the acquisition of RNAi company Sequitur last November is just one in a string of recent deals. Prior to receiving the Frost & Sullivan 2003 Drug Discovery Company of the Year award, Lucier spoke with editor-in-chief Kevin Davies in San Diego about his company's spending spree and quest to become the one-stop supplier of tools, reagents, and software across the drug discovery pipeline.
Q: Greg, what are Invitrogen's goals?
A: The goal of Invitrogen is to create an operating system for drug discovery, development, and production. We are continuing to fill in the key pieces to allow that ultimate platform company to be created. We've grown very rapidly, from $30 million just four to five years ago, to over $800 million now. We think the future is very bright, because there are not a lot of comparable companies out there.
Our major products are reagents that allow scientists to conduct experiments in genomics, proteomics, cell biology, labeling and detection, all facets of biotechnology. On the other side, we're into cell culture — we do a lot of bioprocessing work with biopharmaceutical companies to help them formulate their cell lines, feed their cells, and create high yields in order to produce their drugs.
How do you serve such a great diversity among your client base?
Our dream is to bring determinism to the concept of developing a new drug. Clearly, science is not engineering, but more engineering in science could be very helpful. It's ironic that the only industry I've ever been in that uses the term 'discovery' is this one. Discovery brings all the connotations of long shot, risk, failure — so if Invitrogen can bring more determinism to this whole process, I think the economic value for our clients is quite profound.
Invitrogen has purchased four companies in the past six months. What was the rationale behind these acquisitions?
Invitrogen has been built up through acquisitions. It's very good at integrating companies together to continue to build up this platform. It's the heritage of the company ... The future heritage is going to be even more R&D oriented; we're not going to totally rely on acquisitions to charge our growth. [In 2003] alone, we've spent almost $500 million, and we'll probably make one or two more acquisitions [soon].
We acquired PanVera out of Vertex [Pharmaceuticals], which allowed us to [move] downstream more to the high-throughput screening side of drug development. This was very strategic for us ... Molecular Probes is the world leader in molecular labeling and detection, and brings us lots of different technologies that are very synergistic to our core market and the drug market. The other acquisitions are smaller: Genicon Sciences does nanoparticles for labeling and detection — it builds on the Molecular Probes platform.
Most recently, Sequitur moves us into — we think — disruptive technology with the method of RNAi. We're already the number one RNA company with transfection and reagents, etc. This will bolster our position as the company in RNAi ... We're also working on some other things that are even more disruptive, which have nothing to do with RNAi, to silence genes, so we're going to see where they play out. We do have therapeutic rights to the [Sequitur] acquisition — I'm not sure we would ever develop them, but they're out there; we'll just have to see how it goes.
Can you give an example of how Invitrogen can speed up drug discovery?
With the large pharma companies, their problem — everyone's problem — is they want to fail early. But they got into animal models, and it takes a long time to answer the question. We have deep expertise in cell biology and understanding cell function through our Gibco business. The question is, can Invitrogen develop cell-based assays that don't exist yet, leveraging your cellular engineering expertise, so you could perhaps do a lot more in vitro than ultimately in vivo, and so shorten that cycle time and animal testing that has to get done?
Where do you see the role of IT, and InforMax in particular, in the drug discovery process?
If you take a systems engineering view of how some concept-to-creation biopharmaceutical has to be brought to fruition, IT is the critical linkage ... We're huge believers in it; we're very happy InforMax was acquired [in 2002]. It's a good piece of software, but ... it doesn't do the full linkage among our products that it has to, so we've got to substantially broaden our capabilities to, in our view, set up this whole wet-lab/dry-lab experience.
One of the interesting new [features] of InforMax [is] you can do work on the InforMax system, and it ultimately leads to the reagents that you can buy from Invitrogen to do the same thing for the physical world. That's very novel ... that's the advantage we have in the IT space, we can do wet-lab/dry-lab and truly make it a tool to allow that trade-off to take place.
I'm not sure there's a business model here [in informatics]. There are a lot of reasons for that. Our clients have hired people with informatics expertise ... so buying something from an external vendor is damn tough. I'm not so concerned about that, because I don't want Invitrogen to make a business unto itself just selling information systems. Our goal is to be a solutions company.
Would you also like to offer platforms like some of your competitors?
In our world, a platform would be our Gateway cloning technology. And we've got several other examples ... Inside Invitrogen we've got very strong scientific expertise, so it's not the machine development expertise; we're actually doing the molecular biology. We're going to increase R&D funding from 7 percent of sales to around 10 percent of sales next year; that's a substantial amount of money for us — about $100 million per year. Some key questions are: How can we increase the yield [of new drugs] in a cell line? How can we bring more value to mass spec? ... How can we do different things in the labeling and detection space?
Our Phase I strategy is drug discovery, development, and production. But we really have dreams and hopes to go far beyond that ... I want our customer base in the future to be you — patients!
PHOTO OF LUCIER BY JAMES DICKENS
Your reaction to GE acquiring Amersham?
You have to ask yourself, how good is Amersham? It's perhaps a tale of two cities. On the contrast agent side, they're very strong. One could argue they're very strong in biosciences, though if you lined up every major technology company you're hard-pressed to see them in the top three, at least the way we've looked at it. So in this industry, where the best science prevails, where good selling doesn't necessarily help you, I think that's a very tough position, because GE has always been a selling organization. It doesn't matter here — you can be the best sales team in the world — if you don't have the right technology, it's very difficult.