Company Profile: GE Healthcare Life Sciences

By Dr Matt Wilkinson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Life sciences, Ge healthcare

LabTechnologist.com brings you an exclusive interview with Ger
Brophy - general manager of Advanced Systems within GE Healthcare's
Life Science Division.

The General Electric Company (GE) was founded in 1878 by Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the incandescent electric lamp, as the Edison Electric Light Company. The company has since grown into one of the largest companies in the world with 2006 revenues of $163bn and profits of $20.6bn and as of January 2007 had 310,000 employees. GE is comprised of six different companies, GE Commercial Finance, GE Healthcare, GE Industrial, GE Infrastructure, GE Money and NBC Universal. According to Ger Brophy: "In GE Healthcare the mission statement revolves around the concepts of predict, diagnose, treat and monitor and we see an increasing bias towards the prediction and diagnosis of disease." "It makes sense for the GE Life Sciences group to be positioned within the GE Healthcare business as we have the tools to start looking at a molecular level inside individuals so we can start understanding their DNA sequence, gene expression patterns, biomarkers, the analysis of cellular profiles and patterns." "Within the Life Sciences group there are five individual businesses: Genomic Sciences, Protein Sciences, Bioprocess, Service and Advanced Systems." "Advanced Systems focuses on deploying complex systems for customer use in advanced protein analysis with the Biacore division, discovery tools for life sciences such as the IN Cell analysis systems, high throughput screening technologies and other tools for early stage drug discovery within pharma and biotech companies." What does the company sell and what are your major product lines? ​ In Advanced Systems the most important system is the IN Cell analysis system. That is a reflection of the fact that people want more sophisticated models for drug discovery. Primary high throughput screening is useful, but it only gives very binary answers and doesn't really map the complexity of emerging disease models and some of the new targets. The IN Cell platform allows you to conduct target validation and screening experiments in more advanced cellular models. It takes very fast, high resolution images of cells in 96 and 384 well plates using biological assays to study events such as translocations within a cell. The degree of that translocation can be analysed with our software platforms. Illustra is our platform brand for genomic sample preparation. We understand the importance of sample prep and we have a strong position in both the genomic and proteomic sample prep markets. Within the protein sciences, Trap is our major product line. But perhaps the biggest platform we have got within Life Sciences is our Akta line. It's a range of technologies that we use for protein preparation and purification and its major advantage is that it is scalable. One might start in an introductory experiment preparing a small amount of a protein and increasingly want to scale up from lab scale to pilot plant scale and the beauty of that to our customers is that you can take the purification protocols the whole way through the scale up process and let them translate the quality results they get in the laboratory to scaled up processes. What sort of percentage sales growth has the company been seeing recently? ​ Over the past five years GE has seen its earnings grow at an average of 10 per cent per year and in 2007 GE Healthcare plans to achieve $17bn worth of revenue with the Life Sciences division contributing $1.3bn. GE Healthcare is strongly positioned as a vehicle for growth as healthcare spend in general will not decrease, so people look to us across the whole of GE for significant growth potential. What is the balance between instrument and consumables sales? ​ There's no easy answer to that as the balance varies dramatically between the different businesses. Across the whole life sciences business the breadth of products sold by GE means that it is about 50:50, but for the Advanced Systems division the balance is probably more like 60 per cent instrument sales to 40 per cent consumables. In defining consumables, we have elements that might not traditionally be considered as such; for instance we have a very strong radiolabeling service for DMPK [drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics] studies that would fall within our definition of a consumable. What are the main application areas for your products? ​ We have a got wide footprint because we are a large company, but if I was to pick out two areas for the company to focus on they would be proteomics tools for analysis, purification and characterisation and tools for early phase drug discovery. Following on from the genomics revolution we have a lot of sequence data that we still need to make sense of and we have a lot of tools from relatively straightforward analysis tools such as differential gel electrophoresis to very sophisticated tools that focus on characterizing protein interaction that came with the Biacore acquisition. Our primary focus there is research, academic and government labs to really understand at a basic level what makes these proteins work, what they interact with and what makes them important. We also have a lot of tools and technologies that resonate with our pharma and biotech customers in the area of early stage drug discovery. We are increasingly seeing large academic centres of excellence conducting screening experiments as well. We have screening tools right the way from primary high throughput, in vitro screening tools like SPA and HitHunter through to more advanced tools for cellular analysis. The IN Cell is used for high content screening and secondary analysis as well as some toxicology and validation. The Biacore A100 and T100 are also finding a huge application in drug fragment screening and lead validation applications. The drug discovery angle continues right through to our labelling services for putting radiolabels in emerging drug candidates for DMPK studies. What is the balance between customers in Industry and Academia? ​ The balance really depends on the specific business within the group, but overall I would estimate that we probably sell somewhat more into academia than industry as we have a strong footprint of a lot of very nice research tools in that space and the overall consumer business in genomic and proteomic science primarily sits in academia. If I was to estimate I would say sales were distributed about 60:40 between academia and industry, but within that you do get blips where the bias is in the other direction, such as in Advanced Systems. Are you seeing a shift in the geographic distribution of your customers? ​ The big markets of Europe, North America and Japan are still the big markets for us, but we are seeing increasing sales to countries like Puerto Rico, Ireland and China for our bioprocess products such as protein separation media and equipment as those countries are increasingly being utilised for drug manufacture. In drug discovery we are seeing great emerging opportunities in India where a lot of drug screening is being outsourced. We've seen up to 30 or 40 per cent sales increases and it's definitely a market that we want to support as much as possible. One of the great advantages of GE is the company's breadth and we are increasingly utilising our research centres round the world, such as the research centre in Bangalore, India. We've worked hard to ensure we have strong platforms in position there so we can make sure our customers are exposed to the technologies we have and that we are in a good position to support their utilisation. What percentage of revenues is the company spending on R&D and what areas is that investment going into? ​ We put 8 per cent of our revenues back into R&D. In our consumables business sample preparation is an absolute focus for us both for proteins and nucleic acid. In terms of the Advanced Systems area the focus is on cells and that ranges from cell preparation to assay technology for cells to the IN Cell platform for the analysis of sub-cellular analysis of various cellular processes. This derives from the understanding that more sophisticated models are required, in vitro systems get you so far, but we know that the more cellular we can make the analyses the better quality information comes from it. Does this represent a continuation of current strengths or a move into new areas? ​ I think we focus on moving into manageable adjacent areas and we are tracking a strong movement towards cellular assays in primary screening. We know that over 50 per cent of primary high throughput screens are now conducted in cells and that's a huge shift from a few years ago. That's what is happening in the real world and that directs the development work that we are doing. We have a concept of a cell factory where we provide cells with assay technology already built in to primary high throughput labs because the infrastructure for the production of those cells may not be in place. We have strong tools in cryo-preservation and we can make highly reliable cells that can be pulled off the shelf and used straight away. We're seeing quite an appetite for that service in drug screening. It is a slightly different technology, but its primary screening in the same application area that we've traditionally been selling into with our SPA [scintillation proximity assay] -type high throughput screening technology. Drug discovery is a fast moving area to be in, and you really have to stay on top of the trends and offer meaningful value propositions to customers. Does the company look to move into new areas through in-house R&D, inward licensing, or by company acquisition… or a combination of these? ​ It's a combination of these, for a company of our size putting 8 per cent of our revenue into R&D is good but equally acquisitions often provide great opportunities to move into new areas. The Wave acquisition allowed us to move into bioprocess disposables market. In the Life Sciences research space, the highest profile acquisition has been Biacore. Our challenge now is to identify and implement the crossover projects as soon as possible. For instance, we have a meeting later this month where we have the Biacore and Life Sciences research teams look at the projects that we can undertake which will underpin the Advanced Systems platform development roadmap for the next few years. When you design new instruments what sort of effort do you put into hardware and software upgradeability? ​ Developing platforms is critical to our success; we have been successful doing this because customers need continuity of look and feel as well. Biacore is a great example of a platform technology based around SPR [Surface Plasmon Resonance] and we're currently looking at how we can extend this approach into other areas. There are quantifiable customer advantages to platform development in terms of responsiveness, reliability, ease of service and cost. If we can recycle some components and some product development ideas they will have a genuine advantage to customers in terms of their accessibility. When we think of designing a platform upgradeability is very, very important in our development thinking. Where are the instrument parts manufactured and assembled? ​ We access parts from all over the world. GE Healthcare has got manufacturing plants in China, Milwaukee, US and in Europe. Within Life Sciences we access a lot of components from different areas but our primary manufacturing plant for instruments is based in Sweden. The majority of our consumables and reagents come out of our site in Cardiff, in the UK. What sort of after sales service packages do you offer? And does the company help install and teach users how to run the instruments optimally? ​ When we do market studies it is clear that we are known for our after sales support. The level of technical support that we can give to our applications rates extraordinarily highly among our users and that is a position we want to maintain. People feel that GE Healthcare Life Sciences staff really know their stuff and understand customer requirements in whatever application is being discussed from sample preparation through drug discovery and biopharmaceutical production. A lot of the support comes with the products when you buy them, and we have technical support centres all over the world and people trained to speak various languages to give the support that's required. In addition, we also have a very strong servicing arm and we've been able to work on the instrument service technology that they have in terms of parts and distribution centres and a lot of sophisticated tools. One service I would like to draw your attention to in particular is called BioInSite​ which we use to remotely manage some of our customers' instruments, with their permission. It's quite clever because it uses remote servers into which both the customer instrument and our analysis feed and therefore minimises concerns around firewall security. This allows us to do remote diagnosis to make sure instruments are operating as required, as well as giving assay support live on customer instruments. We have a customer site in Perth, Australia and we can run the assays from our New Jersey office! That is the kind of sophisticated tool that being part of GE allows us to access. Roughly how much of your installed base is supported by your own service staff and those of your authorised agents/distributors versus third party service firms? ​ We are big enough that we can do the majority of servicing ourselves, in the more remote areas of the emerging markets we do leverage local firms, but largely as part of GE we do have a global coverage. How much importance does the company put on building a relationship between specific engineers and support staff and individual customers? ​ We place a lot of importance on building relationships between customers and our engineering staff. We know that very often service engineers are the main point of contact that our customers have and they have to be genuine and knowledgeable ambassadors of our technology. It is often the case that the local service engineer is the tangible face of the Life Sciences division and we make sure they are in a good position to reflect that. Have you or third party contractors done any assessments of brand loyalty for your products? If so, can you give us any information about this? ​ We do a lot of work on brand loyalty around a concept called 'net promoter score' it's really simple and asks if a customer was asked if they would recommend us to a third party. Because it's a very blunt tool it's very illustrative and we use it extensively across the whole of GE. We take polls of or net promoter score every six months constantly strive to increase our scores. It also tells us if there are any areas that we need to bring some focus to bear on and works quite well as a diagnostic tool. We can see immediately if there is anything that we've done that resonates very well with our customers or equally if there's anything that we've done that hasn't been received so well and allow us to take quick steps to address that. We have found our net promoter score to be the most consistent and easily understood score for us to use.

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