Keegan takes reins at ForteBio

Former Molecular Devices CEO to spearhead next phase of company development

Chris Anderson
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MENLO PARK, Calif.—A little more than a year after launching its flagship Octet instrument line which allows for label-free, real-time detection of molecular interacations, ForteBio Inc. landed life science industry heavyweight Joe Keegan as its new president and CEO to guide the company's next wave of growth. Keegan, who held the same position at Molecular Devices Corp. (MDC) for nine years, helped guide that company from $30 million in sales in 1998 to one that was acquired in March by Canada's MDS for $615 million.

"Our company has been doing very well and we weren't looking for a new CEO," says founding CEO Winnie Wan, who steered the early development of the company and will remain on the board of directors. "But Joe happened to be available after MDC was acquired and sometimes you have to grab the right person when they become available."

Keegan admits that he wasn't actively looking for a new position, but was approached by the venture capitalists backing ForteBio. He was both familiar with the Octet system and understood the importance of the label-free technology. "At Molecular Devices, we had looked at label-free technologies," says Keegan. "The BLI (bio-layer interferometry) technology is a powerful platform, and the company is just at the beginning of exploiting that market. Our objective would be to become the leader in label-free detection."

To that end, Keegan says the first order of businesses will be to build a broader sales force in North America and work toward further strengthening the sales structure in Europe and Asia. "We have very little penetration outside [North America], so Europe, Japan, China and all of Asia are all markets that are ripe for us to take the Octet into," Keegan notes. "[Building sales infrastructure] is something we did very effectively at Molecular Devices."

The company already has a toe-hold in China, as its manufacturing subsidiary is based in Shanghai. And in Europe, Keegan says the intent would also be to build a direct sales force. In other markets, the company will most likely take a combined approach of direct sales and working with established life sciences distributors.

But beyond geographic market penetration, Keegan sees opportunities in other underserved areas of the life sciences. While the company has successfully sold Octet to the majority of the top 20 pharma companies, particularly those who are working in therapeutic antibodies and proteins, most customers are using it at the development stage for process optimization related to efficient bio production.

But Keegan, and others at ForteBio would like to see a greater number of research scientists also embrace Octet for their protein quantitation work where the technology stacks up rather favorably against other protein quantitation methods including ELISA and HPLC.

"That is where the other opportunity is," Keegan notes. "It's not in geographical areas but to further our penetration within biotech and shifting from the production area to discovery and to raise awareness of its fragment capabilities and other in this broader area."

Currently, the product development staff is working on a next generation of products that will make them more applicable to scientists working the discovery area. That said, the company already has one product, the Octet Q, developed strictly for protein quantitation that hits this market. The other Octet model the QK, which also provides kinetic analysis, is a better fit farther downstream.

But moving the company in these directions is not inexpensive. For that reason, Keegan says, the company will look to open a second round of financing within the next six months to support its growth plans.

"Another thing that made Joe attractive is that he has experience handling public markets," says Wan. "He has a strong track record of growth and it is a possibility that we need to consider if the market conditions are right."

For Keegan, the opportunity to take the company public is also on his radar. "I would say one of the milestones of our success would be to take the company public and my own objective would be to do that within two to three years."

Chris Anderson

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