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Becton Dickinson's Magic Markers

Executive Summary

Becton Dickinson thinks the continued automation of diagnostics is a no-win, low-margin game. Instead, it's making a big bet on discovering new, proprietary tests. And while the gamble is both high-cost and high-risk, the company figures the drug industry has now funded enough infrastructure and genomic research to make BD's search affordable. One other gamble: BD will have to partner out much of what it discovers since it doesn't have all the requisite testing platforms on which to run the assays.

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BD's Challenge: Making Everything Old New Again

Recent legislation requiring hospitals to convert to safety devices to prevent needle-stick injuries has come as a kind of validation for Becton, Dickinson, the market leader in needles and syringes, whose efforts to develop safety products began well before customers or the government required them. Critics have charged that like all big companies with strong market share positions, BD has lagged in technology innovation, preferring to spend its time and energy defending its existing products. BD officials insist that just the opposite is true. But creating meaningful innovation is difficult in the kinds of high volume, low margin product lines that needles and syringes became over the 1980s and 1990s. For one thing, clinician input into new technology designs is rare; at the same time, the statistical data to back the importance of safety product conversions is scant. Perhaps most daunting, in a cost-constrained hospital market, the economic pay-off is still small, at least relative to other medical device innovation. Still, BD officials say, they persevered, leading the way in safety device innovation at a time when the company's interests, arguably, would have been better served defending its core line of conventional devices.

Big Diagnostics Companies See the Genomics Light

Until now, large diagnostics companies have been slow to get involved in the industry's biggest paradigm shift in a decade: the move to molecular markers that will help make diagnostics part of the treatment process. At this year's AACC, the small companies leading the way in this field were beginning to make their presence felt. And the big companies, J&J, Roche, Abbott, Beckman, were starting to talk about their own programs in the field. But they're moving slowly in a fast-moving field, and thus are vulnerable to new competitors.

BD's Progress in Molecular Markers

Having already collaborated with Millennium Pharmaceuticals to find marker candidates for its molecular oncology program, BD is now tapping TriPath Imaging to help build an imaging system to analyze the markers. Its strategy of relying on partners means it has to give up some profits, but BD is confident that the results will yield a value high enough to make the program economically feasible. It's a model that other companies are likely to emulate as they move into molecular diagnostics.

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