Agilent acquires Molecular Imaging, sees macromarket for nanotechnology

Creating new ways to look at small things – single molecules – could add up to big business for Agilent Technologies. The company intends to expand its nanomeasurement market share through its November acquisition of Tempe, Ariz.-based Molecular Imaging Corp., which develops and manufactures atomic force microscopes (AFMs). AFM applications for drug discovery include screening compounds for drug affinities and watching molecules in live cells. Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

Lisa Espenschade
PALO ALTO, Calif. – Creating new ways to look at small things – single molecules – could add up to big business for Agilent Technologies. The company intends to expand its nanomeasurement market share through its November acquisition of Tempe, Ariz.-based Molecular Imaging Corp., which develops and manufactures atomic force microscopes (AFMs). AFM applications for drug discovery include screening compounds for drug affinities and watching molecules in live cells. Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.
 
Vance Nau, former president and CEO at Molecular Imaging, who is now AFM business manager at Agilent, says the merger is a good strategic fit that will enable AFMs to reach more marketing channels and allow the company to "broaden our technology for the next generation of products."
 
The deal, says Jeff Jones, marketing and integration manager at Agilent, is a natural progression for Agilent because it intersects with the company's markets in chemical analysis, and testing and measuring and can incorporate technologies from both sides of Agilent's existing business. AFM falls under a new Nanotechnology Measurements division at Agilent.
 
Agilent research estimates the market for nanotechnology measurement tools at $1 billion; a prepared Agilent statement predicts annual growth at 20 percent and describes AFM's share of nanotechnology measurement as "a significant portion." Agilent, including Molecular Imaging, will incorporate technology from all of its divisions into new nanomeasurement tools, says Jones, as it looks into the future to create products that meet researchers' expected needs. Agilent, he says, "clearly would like to be a leader in this space."
 
Molecular Imaging will remain in Tempe, with employees joining Agilent. Jones says Tempe is key to Molecular Imaging's history because of a "tight relationship" with Arizona State University that will continue and potentially expand. Molecular Imaging "was formed as a spinout from ASU," says Nau, after researcher Stuart Lindsay, who became a Molecular Imaging co-founder, needed technology for imaging fluids. "He invented it because he needed it," says Nau.
 
AFM draws a probe just above the surface of a sample and then converts information on the forces between the probe and the sample into images that show surface topography.
 
Nau describes AFM, which measures materials at the nanometer scale, as "an enabling technology that opens up a whole new way of doing measurement… AFM has really started a new way of doing research into materials at the single-molecule level. For the first time, we can actually measure the forces or the affinities between molecules." Beyond being able to screen about 100 compounds per second for affinities, Nau says that AFM can "open doors to new styles of drugs, new styles of materials, new ways of characterizing samples" because researchers can directly measure interactions between molecules.
 
AFM customers include scientists who want to observe cells, perhaps watching how substances and cell membranes interact within living systems. AFM can also manipulate, move, and stimulate cells while researchers watch at high resolution. Other applications include materials chemistry, electronics, and polymer science. A typical AFM costs about $100,000-120,000, far less than electron microscopes, say Nau and Jones, who note that Molecular Imaging's PicoPlus family of AFMs can also be customized to operate under varied conditions, either ambient or controlled environments with specific pressures, temperatures, or fluids.

Lisa Espenschade

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