In times of an economic downturn, life scientists need to be as efficient and effective as possible in the lab. Which makes the reagents, hardware, and services they use all the more important.
Indeed, in the sixth Life Science Industry Awards, users consistently value products that save them time and money, as well as those that provide versatility and good customer support. In total, 11 companies were picked as the winners in 20 categories.
"There's been a clear emergence of very high-quality industry leaders, and that's what we've recognized here," says Richard Gallagher, editor and publisher of The Scientist. But while certain leaders may dominate the field, Gallagher predicts that future surveys will recognize smaller, newer life science suppliers that are gradually assuming more prominent positions. "It'll be exciting to watch," he says.
The Scientist worked with Arlington, Va.-based marketing research firm BioInformatics LLC, who polled our readers and members of the Science Advisory Board, with responses from almost 4,500 scientists. Award winners were feted June 3, 2008 in Boston at the General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).
Cell Biology Instruments-Flow Cytometer-based
Winner: BD Biosciences
The ease of use and reproducibility of BD's main flow cytometry instrument, the FACSAria, "really opened up cell sorting to researchers around the world," says William Rhodes, the company's president of cell analysis. What's kept BD at the forefront, he says, is its ability to offer the set-up in multiple configurations, to meet diverse research needs. In January, the company launched the next generation Aria, with improved automation and software, and in May BD acquired Cytopaeia, allowing the company to offer another technology for sorting larger particles, such as marine biology samples and stem cells.
"We needed a robust system that could accommodate all sorts of different biologies," says Bill Hyun, who has installed 15 BD flow cytometers in the Laboratory for Cell Analysis, a core facility he directs at University of California, San Francisco, that's used by more than 400 investigators. BD's machine "sorts everything from amoebas to zebrafish."
Cell Culture Media and Reagents
Winner: Invitrogen (Gibco)
Invitrogen is focused on providing the "best overall cell culture experience," writes Nicole Brockway, director of Market Development and Cell Culture Research, in an E-mail. This year, the Gibco product line, Invitrogen's brand of cell culture products and services, expanded to encompass a "broader portfolio," Brockway notes, including primary cells, growth factors, and matrices, particularly the Algimatrix and Geltrex scaffolds which allow researchers to grow cells in a three-dimensional environment. We want to "provide our customers with the total solution to meet their cell culture needs," writes Brockway.
The Program in Vascular Medicine and Biology at the Stanford School of Medicine regularly uses Gibco products for procedures around the lab like western blots, dry protein transfer, and human stem cell cultures. "All of them work great," says Jenny Wu, a senior research scientist in the department.
Nucleic Acid Purification and Separation Products
Karin Schulz, Qiagen's senior global director of product management, says that the company took this year's award because of its relentless drive to improve. "Qiagen has the broadest sample technology portfolio, which is constantly expanded by international teams of R&D scientists," she writes in an E-mail. "We understand the application needs of our customers."
"With Qiagen, I know I'm going to get a highly reliable product that's going to work the first time and every time thereafter," says customer Joe Washburn, manager of the University of Michigan's microarray core facility. Qiagen's products are competitively priced, and he has no plans of switching suppliers any time soon, Washburn adds. "I've been using Qiagen for years. When something works, you don't try to fix it."
Cell Biology Kits and Reagents
Invitrogen strives to "allow researchers to detect things they were not able to detect before," says Jeff Croissant, the company's global marketing program manager. In addition to possessing a strong antibody and immunoassay portfolio, he says, Invitrogen provides kits and reagents that are highly reproducible and useful with small samples. One of Invitrogen's new technologies is the Click-iT EdU cell proliferation assay, an imaging kit that allows researchers to look at rapidly proliferating cells. Sarah Cheesman, a postdoc in molecular biology at the University of Oregon, finds the Click-iT EdU assay highly superior to protocols she has used to study cell proliferation in zebrafish. Strengths of the kit include the resolution of the labels, the ease of labeling, and the speed of the procedure. "It only takes an hour or two from start to finish," she says. "It saves a lot of time."
This year, Invitrogen sports a brand-new Web site that once again earned top honors. "We fully launched in late April," says Joe Lee, Invitrogen's Director of Web Design and e-Marketing. Customers value the richness of scientific content on the Web site, Lee adds, which now includes all documentation, manuals, and reference information for a product. It's all there "at their fingertips," he says, including interactive features where scientists can enter a gene or protein of interest to develop customized products.
A repeat winner in this category, Invitrogen's Vice President of Customer Care attributes the company's success to the members of its support team. "They are very well-versed in experimental science," says Siddhartha Kadia. Many have PhDs in science and "can go toe to toe with the science user in really discussing experimental design," he adds. "Customers really enjoy that level of support, and we offer it for free."
Andrew Bieberich at Purdue University Discovery Park took advantage of Invitrogen's technical support when attempting to track calcium flux in cells using Invitrogen's fluo-4 indicator. The tool typically highlights calcium levels for only a few seconds, but Bieberich wanted to perform the assay over hours. "I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with them," he says. The support representatives knew what they were doing, Bieberich continues, "and they got me to a point where I was able to design and execute the experiment."
Most Useful Print Catalog
Winner: New England Biolabs
For the third year in a row, New England Biolabs earned the top spot in this category. Even though most supply orders are placed through the internet these days, the catalog has as big a following as ever.
"The catalog has remained a very nice resource for product listings, which is sometimes quicker to use than a Web site," says William Huckle, cell biologist at Virginia Tech, whose lab always has a copy of the catalog on hand. In addition, he adds, "there's not a lot of extraneous material or visual noise," and yet it's a "work of art in many ways."
NEB marketing director Peter Nathan says the print catalog is a tangible connection to the company, something customers lack when dealing only with a Web site.
Whether researchers need a high performance system for number crunching, running models, or developing graphics, Dell - a repeat winner in this category - has a system for the job.
Dell works hard to customize the computing systems to each customer's research needs, says August Calhoun, Vice President of Life Science Businesses at Dell. "Almost every day I hear a customer say 'it's great you've invested in building an organization with the ability to understand my business,'" says Calhoun.
But desktop computers are only half the story. "Dell servers do almost all of the 'heavy lifting' in our group," says Keith Laidig, IT coordinator in a health sciences lab at the University of Washington. His group requires performance, speed and reasonable cost, all demands that Dell developers have worked hard to meet, he says.
Image Analysis Systems
Winner: Bio-Rad Laboratories
A repeat winner in this category, Bio-Rad has been selling variations of their popular Gel Doc XR imaging system for 15 years and now has a "large loyal group of users out there," says Charlie Martin, marketing manager for Bio-Rad's imaging systems and software. "Our instruments help [scientists] to be more successful getting their data," says Martin. Recently, the company updated their VersaDoc molecular imaging systems.
This past year, Lily and Yuh Nung Jan's lab at the University of California, San Francisco, purchased Bio-Rad's VersaDoc MP 4000, a proteomics workstation, for chemiluminescent imaging of Western Blots as well as some fluorescent imaging. Hee Jung Chung, a postdoc in the lab, uses the system and appreciates the ability to image an entire plate at once. "It's very powerful and very time efficient," she says.
Winner: Dharmacon (Thermo Fisher Scientific)
Mike Deines, the global marketing director for the genomics businesses at Dharmacon, a division of Thermo Fisher Scientific, says the company's success in RNAi products stems from its expertise and scientific knowledge of the field. "Our customers recognize our contribution to leading the technology at every step since the early days of RNAi," he says.
The scientific expertise behind Dharmacon's products leads to their quality and reliability, says Alex Gaither, a researcher who studies high throughput functional genomics at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research. Gaither especially likes Dharmacon's reverse transfection format plates, which come loaded with the siRNAs Gaither needs in his experiments. "We just add cells and reagent and go," Gaither says.
Winner: Fisher Scientific (Thermo Fisher Scientific)
The vast majority of Fisher Scientific sales reps have scientific backgrounds, which helps them communicate with their customers, according to Keith Jolliff, a marketing director with the company. Plus, regardless of their previous experiences, all Fisher reps go through "Fisher University," a four week intensive training course, where they learn about the company's 350,000 products, pricing, and marketing. "They understand what the total need of the researcher is,'' he says.
Robert Shanks, a microbial geneticist at the University of Pittsburgh, agrees that the prime strength of Fisher sales reps is their scientific knowledge. "You can tell that many of them were graduate students," he jokes: "They get nervous around PIs."
Instrumentation for Protein Analysis
Winner: Bio-Rad Laboratories
Customers value Bio-Rad's protein analysis products, says Emily Dale, business unit marketing manager for the company, because they are complete packages that make workflow easy. "We've really focused our efforts on the software components of systems," says Dale, so they are "easy to use." Cytokine assays for the Bio-Plex multiplex suspension array system are the division's top sellers, says Dale.
The division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota owns two Bio-Plex systems, one at the university and one at a project site in Kenya. "It's a whole package deal," says Gregory Parks, a lab director at the department, citing the simplicity of the kits, speed of the protocol, and diversity of reagents for the system. "It makes things faster, easier for our international staff, and that's important," says Parks. Likewise, he adds, "The reproducibility of results is great."
Instrumentation for Genomic Analysis
Winner: Applied Biosystems
Performance is what drives the success of Applied Biosystems' genomic analysis platforms, says Kevin McKernan, the company's senior director of scientific operations. The SOLiD System, for example, "has been doubling in throughput every quarter for almost seven quarters now," he says, with the newest version, released in October, 2007, providing about 15 gigabytes of sequence in one run. "The higher throughput translates to cost-effectiveness."
The Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center has begun using the SOLiD System for the 1,000 Genomes Project, an initiative to sequence the genomes of at least 1,000 people around the world. "We are sequencing about 200 gigabases, and we're very pleased right now with the performance," says Donna Muzny, director of operations, adding that accuracy was high as well. The platform does an especially good job of reading paired-end fragments, she says, a key strategy for detecting genome-wide variation.
Print advertisements are one of the company's greatest strengths in recent years, says Siddhartha Kadia, VP of Global Marketing, eBusiness, and Customer Care at Invitrogen. The company delivers a "strong brand message" in advertisements, he says, which are successful thanks to a strong relationship with the advertising agency. Agency representatives "really understand our business," he adds, "and are able to speak the language that our customers understand."
Gene Expression Analysis Products
Winner: Applied Biosystems
Applied Biosystems gets its edge in gene expression analysis from the breadth of its product offerings. "I think what distinguishes us is that the products we offer cover the whole workflow," says Criss Walworth, director of AB's consumables product line. "What ties the whole product line together," she says, "is TaqMan chemistry. There's nothing that can compare for specificity and selectivity - it's the gold standard for quantitative gene expression."
"I definitely love the products," says Christine Hinckle, a research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who has been analyzing clinical samples using AB's gene expression analysis assays for about three years. "Before I got [AB's assays] I was trying to develop them on my own," she says. The AB product suite was "just more economical in the long run," and allowed Hinckle to conduct semi-high-throughput studies with ease. What's more, she says, "the customer service is really good."
Screening and Analysis Systems
This year, PerkinElmer introduced new screening instruments and acquired two other companies - Evotec and Improvision - to add cellular imaging tools to its product list, earning it the top spot in our survey for the second time in three years. "As we continue to develop all these systems, [customers] are finding that we are continually meeting their needs as their technical needs evolve and screening needs evolve," says Richard Eglen, PerkinElmer's biodiscovery president.
Dejan Bojanic, head of Novartis' lead finding platform, says PerkinElmer assay development specialists work side-by-side with researchers in his lab to help them either buy the right tools or figure out what PerkinElmer can design to best identify possible therapeutic compounds and evaluate compound safety. The collaboration works, he says. "What we all need to do is enable the project," he says. "We're speaking a common language."
"Invitrogen is an incredibly customer-centric organization," says Siddhartha Kadia, the company's VP of Global Marketing, eBusiness, and Customer Care. "We invest a lot in understanding what [customers'] needs are." Invitrogen sends out teams for weeks at a time to observe customers using the products and to gather their input, Kadia adds. Additionally, the company tracks customer service line statistics, and incoming calls are answered within 20 seconds or less over 80% of the time, he says.
Creating 5,000 knockout mice is no easy task, but with a little help from Invitrogen and other researchers, Pieter de Jong is making it happen. His UK colleagues design and place the team's order with Invitrogen, says de Jong, a principal investigator at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, and his part of the project is delivered to his lab in California. The customer service representatives have been "extremely helpful" throughout the process, willing to engage and work things out, says de Jong.
Winner: Fisher (FisherBrand) (Thermo Fisher Scientific)
Chuck Dobler, Vice President of Global Category and Portfolio Management at Fisher Scientific, says that the key to the company's success in the plasticware category is its insistence on quality, reliability and value. "We make sure that the product attributes are what the customer is looking for."
For Sylvia Dryden, a molecular biologist at Wayne State University in Michigan, Fisher's plasticware is attractive because of its price. "The university has a really good contract with Fisher where we get quite a bit of a discount and it's free shipping," says Dryden, who has used Fisher products for 25 years. "When we order something, we get it very promptly and at a reasonable price."
Protein Purification and Separation Products
Winner: GE Healthcare
Nigel Darby, GE Healthcare's General Manager of Biotechnology, says that the company's protein purification and separation products are successful sellers because they're scalable: from initial R&D to full-scale manufacture, "from milligrams of protein to tons of protein." Knowing your customer also helps, he says. "The key is always keeping in touch with customers and providing solutions to their needs."
One of those customers is Patricia Alred, senior director of downstream development at Pennsylvania-based biotech company Centocor, who uses GE's protein purification and separation products to study and produce monoclonal antibodies. "When I use something from GE, I'm confident that it's going to work and that I'm not going to get major failures in manufacturing," she says. If problems with GE's products do arise, though, Alred says that the company's "after-market support is really good."
Cell Biology Instruments-Microscope-based
Winner: Carl Zeiss
One of the big draws of Carl Zeiss microscope systems says Alexander Soell, product marketing manager for Carl Zeiss Microimaging, is their modularity. "Zeiss takes a systems approach" in its optical, mechanical, and software components, he says. "We're trying to make all those parts and pieces work well together, and organize them in a way that makes it possible for scientists to be flexible in planning their experiments." A recent example is a six-stage microscope system released this spring that allows researchers to combine two-photon and conventional microscopy.
The optical quality is also a draw, says Kirk Czymmek, who directs the core bioimaging facility at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute of the University of Delaware. The LSM5 DUO that Czymmek recently purchased for the facility, which combines a standard and a fast-scanning confocal microscope, has facilitated "a number of important projects we weren't able to do until now," he says.