Losing sequence: a brief history of Life, Thermo, Roche and Illumina…

The life science industry has recently been awash with news that Thermo Fisher Scientific has agreed to buy Life Technologies for $13.6 billion and $2.2 billion of debt.

The rationale for this acquisition is that while Thermo holds a dominant position in the majority of life science application arenas, it doesn’t (didn’t) have access to products that addressed the gene sequencing market which is predicted to grow rapidly due to the drive for personalized medicine.

Life stated in January that it was open to offers, and Thermo answered the call. What is perhaps more interesting is that despite Roche failing to buy Illumina, Life’s biggest rival in the gene sequencing arena, it didn’t try to buy Life itself (or at least the part of Life that was formally known as Applied Biosystems [ABI]).

And that surprises me as the links between Life and Illumina can be traced back to 1992.

6 years ago, I really enjoyed untangling a web of mergers, acquisitions and intellectual property disputes that originated when Lynx was spun out of ABI. Lynx was then bought by Solexa, and then Solexa was bought by Illumina.

In the meantime, ABI had launched its ‘SOLiD’ next-generation sequencing instrument which was based on technology it bought from Agencourt Personal Genomics. ABI was subsequently bought by Invitrogen, and the combined company was then rebranded as Life. Life then went about buying up IonTorrent which is where its current hopes for the sequencing market lie.

Meanwhile, Roche was busy buying up 454 Life Sciences and the technology that ended up in the FLX sequencing instrument.

And this makes me wonder – was it the technology that Roche and Thermo were interested in? or was it the customer relationships and loyalty?

With Thermo’s strength in laboratory automation and detection, it is not hard to imagine how one could leverage all that expertise to solve customer problems, if the technology they have bought will remain relevant long enough for them to do so.

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