My Dad sold industrial electrical supplies for GE, and from that exposure, I always thought that the drug discovery tools supply & services industry was similarly attractive to GE's for its' scale, business fit, customer base, and exposure to a growth market. (Many of GE's businesses can be described as supplying essential component technology to Fortune 500 business, be they jet engines, electrical transformers, or wind turbines.)
I had been saying that drug discovery was ripe for GE since 1998, when on the executive team at Upstate Biotechnology, at my suggestion, a GE acquisition was listed in our business plan as an exit scenario. In 2003, GE entered the drug discovery market by buying Amersham, and I felt vindicated, and hopeful that GE would continue investing in the drug discovery industry.
That generally hasn't happened, though things may be changing - GE today announced the acquisition of SeqWright, a Texas-based sequencing CRO.
(btw: a good overview of GE Healthcare businesses is available here.)
The press release for the SeqWright acquisition trumpets SeqWright's connection with GE's existing Clarient molecular diagnostics business. (Clarient having been acquired just a year and a half ago), but even together GE still only has its' toe in the molecular diagnostics water. (Especially since the always awesome World Map of High-Throughput Sequencers lists SeqWright as having only 3 machines - one each of 454, SOLiD, and HiSeq.)
The release also affirms that GE's business model in this space is SERVICE, not proprietary R&D/assay development. In other words, both GE and Roche have roughly similar M&A appetites in this space, but GE chose to buy modest capacity in SeqWright, while Roche wants to own an entire technology platform, if the Illumina deal were to close.
(Ironically(?), WSJ's coverage of the GE's acquisition of SeqWright says that Roche is a customer of SeqWright, which I'd bet wouldn't continue if Roche buys ILMN.)
The SeqWright deal reinforces GE's interest in the biotech industry (and more specifically, molecular medicine) not only as a validation statement, but for the fact that more big-league, results-oriented capital is being committed to biotech, as GE invested to generate tangible cash & EPS, whereas the majority of biotech investment is done to create speculative future value (and often only equity value, not cash-flow value.)
Let's face it: biotech needs more investors like GE, and more of their business mentality. GE's acquisition of SeqWright was, in effect, more capital voting for biotech businesses with customers and cash flow, as opposed to transformative technologies or "cool" tech platforms. VCs: why fund any technology company (i.e. company not developing leads) that you couldn't imagine selling to GE? As an example, consider a genetic engineering company like Amyris - sure, they can do proprietary biofuel R&D that might someday pay off, but isn't the highest NPV likely to come from selling the company's capabilities to generate cash flow?
One reason that GE hasn't been more active in the drug discovery industry is that there are not many acquisition targets available to provide scale. Only LIFE, QGEN, VWR, and ThermoFisher could add >$1B in annual revenue to GE, but in general, these companies have generally been valued at a price that would make difficult a non-dilutive acquisition for GE. Still, I can't ignore that LIFE CEO Greg Lucier is a GE-alum, and that QGEN would make a just about perfect complement to GE Healthcare's Life Sciences business.
I could also see GE getting involved in the pursuit of ILMN (it's the Amersham of 2012), but their lack of public involvement to date suggests to me that they either can't make the price work for them, or that GE invests in more predictable technology. (Why make a multi-billion dollar acquisition in Sanger sequencing if other tech platforms (like nanopore sequencing) might overtake Sanger tech?)
(btw: Roche upped their bid last week. ILMN didn't budge at all. I don't think this deal is getting done right now, but rather in 6-18 months time, after the ILMN board of directors experiences an unfavorable quarter.)
As for SeqWright, congrats to them and to any other CRO that manages to get liquid. Deal terms weren't announced, but if SeqWright was growing fast with the rest of the sequencing industry, and cash-flow positive, they probably got a decent price, though, on the flip side for GE, trading GE stock for an ongoing, competitive DNA sequencing lab is more EPS efficient and less risky than opening a lab using their own cash to buy equipment and hire staff, so there is a limit to what GE would pay. GE may have even made acquisition overtures to many sequencing CROs to see who would bite at the lowest price.
Let's hope that GE has a good experience with SeqWright, and further invests in the molecular medicine industry.