Big Oaks and Life Science Platforms


As I watched the twitchy red squirrel gather the few remaining acorns on the ground, I realized that a large portion of the living and dying in the East Woods is dependent on a few keystone species, namely oak, maple and pine trees. These platforms provide food, shelter, environment, and nutrition for dozens of plants, fungi, birds, rodents, and even people (my firewood and maple syrup).

Similarly in the life sciences arena, there are a few significant companies that provide technology products and services upon which hundreds of other companies depend. These platforms control the lion’s share of the marketplace, but are not the only beneficiaries of market growth and expansion. Like in the platform/apps situation with Apple’s iOS, there are some handsome profits to be had by leveraging other’s platforms.

If I look at the exhibitors at the upcoming annual ASMS conference in San Antonio, of the almost 200 vendors, only about 10% can loosely be considered platform suppliers. All the other companies are strongly dependent on these ~20 to sell and support the platforms upon which their products and services are built. Looking at the growth in this field of analytical analysis, it is driven to a large degree by the development of new applications, which often emerge from new companies bringing out new hardware and software ‘apps’ to sit on top of the platforms.

Though things sound rosy here, unlike in the iOS world, many life science companies face some big challenges in trying to interact with the platform providers and their technologies.

  • Connectivity – It is often difficult to interface with these platforms in both hardware and software. Though the platform vendors in principle support application add-ons, they are very protective of their propriety interfaces and designs.
  • Communication – Ideally this is a two way street and though the app-makers vociferously state their linkage to the platform, the converse is rarely true. Exchange of information to/from the platform folks is also constrained, limiting the rate of learning by each party.

To stimulate the growth of the field, and to more importantly address customers’ real problems, I believe that a change in the ecosystem would go a long way. Rather than the current tail-wagging-the-dog model of platforms and application technologies, a move towards a more open environment would provide benefits for all. The more open platforms would attract more customer demand (and more sales) while at the same time speeding the development of new applications that would expand the market.

So like the big oak that extends its branches to feed and protect its brethren, the platform companies have a great opportunity to stimulate the field and provide customers tremendous new value.

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