Single Quad and Triple Quad LC/MS: Equally Dynamic Markets.
The primary distinction between a single triple and a triple quad LC/MS system is sensitivity. Triple quad LC/ MS has higher resolution and is more sensitive. In addition, triple quad systems are capable of MS-MS, which provides data on both the mass and structure of a sample. In the 1990s, the advent of atmospheric pressure chemical ionization and electrospray ionization made coupling a LC with a MS much easier. The decade also marked the intensification of drug development efforts and increased R&D spending by the pharmaceutical industry. These two developments had a significant impact on both the single and triple quad markets. New LC/MS systems became easier to use and more reliable, making them attractive to the pharmaceutical and biotech industries where they could be used throughout the drug discovery and development process.
In addition, in pharmaceutical and other laboratories, HPLC was fast becoming a standard due to its speed, resolution, sensitivity and ability to separate different types of samples. Thus, the market was ripe for a detector that could make HPLC even more powerful. Compared to a HPLC system equipped with a UV or photo diode detector, mass spec detectors provided end-users with higher resolution, greater accuracy and faster results, depending on the application.
In the single quad market, LC/MS became competitive in terms of pricing, footprint and ease of use. Adoption of single quad LC/MS was also helped through pricing and promotion. Vendors such as Agilent, Shimadzu and Waters, which make both HPLC and MS systems, coupled their systems and tapped into their sizable HPLC customer base to upgrade them to LC/MS. At the same time, the market expanded to new customers as LC/MS proved a good match for applications in organic chemicals, environmental and food and beverage labs as well as for analytical services and R&D laboratories.
Ken Imatani, LC/MS product manager for Agilent Technologies, told IBO that the adoption of a MS detector by HPLC users is about five years old and is still going strong. He emphasized the wide range of applications that enables wide adoption as well as the number of units in demand from end-users such as pharmaceutical companies, which use single quad LC/MS for numerous applications. In addition, he notes, the ease-of-use and ruggedness of LC/MS systems have enabled chromatographers to feel comfortable using such systems. In particular, he said that software has been key to this and noted software as one area of the market that is evolving particularly quickly to keep pace with end-users' needs.
The strength of the single-quad market lies not only in its adoption by HPLC users but also in its adoption by the pharmaceutical industry. Mr. Imatani cited DMPK (Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics) and compound screening as two applications particularly well suited for single-quad LC/ MS. LC/MS can be used to confirm a compound, analyze impurities or quantify analytes, among other applications. Besides its high resolution and accuracy, LC/MS is also a high-throughput technique. LC/MS can meet a number of the pharmaceutical industry's needs from R&D from analytical services, to method development and quality control. With increases in pharmaceutical R&D spending and advancements in drug development, single-quad LC/MS has been even more in demand.
Like single quads, the triple quad LC/MS market also grew rapidly over the last decade. However, the growth in this market was stimulated by a different set of factors. As the market developed, vendors brought out an increasingly sensitive systems and products that could be tailored toward specific applications. Although prices have remained high, end-users are willing to pay. Footprints have shrunk and variations in product offerings have increased product choices. Because the technique is so sensitive and the instruments themselves can cost as much as $300,000, the applications for triple quads are much more specialized. "The major market for triple quads is in quantitative bioanalysis in pharmaceutical companies ... specifically in regulated quantification," according to Mark McDowall, marketing director at Micromass. Mr. McDowall told IBO that sensitivity and software demands are two of the primary drivers of the triple quad market. Unlike the single quad market, in most cases, triple quad end-users are not labs that have simply upgraded, but are labswith MS experts that have made a hefty investment in new LC/MS instruments for specific applications. But, like the single quad LC/MS market, the appeal of triple quad goes beyond one set of applications or one stage of the drug development process. Mr. McDowall told IBO, "there's a market that has emerged for quantification prior to regulation ... the market for lead optimization." It is in this application segment where triple quads are used for proteomics and the analyses of peptides and proteins. Thus triple quad LC/MS is ideally suited for for lead optimization, structural identification, regulated quantification and QA/QC.
Both single and triple quad LC/ MS systems have benefited from the acceleration of pharmaceutical research and the embrace of new technology by that industry. Yet, while both markets are growing, with double-digit growth expected over the next five years, relatively few companies compete in both segments. Between the single quad and triple quad market, a total of five companies sell the majority of LC/MS systems and only three of these companies participate in both markets. Agilent, Applied Biosystems, Shimadzu, Thermo Finnigan, and Waters are the primary competitors in the single-quad LC/MS market. In the triple-quad market, the top competitors are Applied Biosystems, Thermo Finnigan, and Micromass (Waters).
Although single and triple quad LC/MS systems are both sold primarily to the pharmaceutical industry, the markets are extremely different in terms of specific applications, price and end-users. Looking at companies that choose to participate in only one of these markets versus companies that choose to participate in both, the advantages of both strategies becomes clear.
For the three companies that participate in both markets, the advantages can be capitalized on even if the connection between the products' marketing and manufacturing is not substantial. If a company has gained a good reputation in either LC/MS market, that reputation, be it for quality, reliability, service, or software, can enhance the company's reputation in relation to the company's other LC/MS products. In addition, familiarity with one company's products enables greater adaptability to a new product. As Mr. McDowall told IBO, if a customer moves from a Waters' single quad LC/ MS to a Micromass triple quad LC/ MS, they will already be familiar with many aspects of the instrument, such as software and ion source, thus enabling faster training and installation and greater end-user familiarity. In this way, customers may find an advantage in purchasing a single quad and triple quad system from the same company. In addition, a technological breakthrough or enhancement to one of the LC/MS product lines can be applied to the other. Such a development is most applicable for software, where capabilities and specialization are rapidly changing and which is an important factor in product differentiation. In addition, companies that offers a wide MS product line, such as one that includes both single quad and triple quad LC/MS, are more likely to be known as a "mass spec company," which can be useful shorthand in this period of fast growth for the technique.
But participation in only one market segment also holds advantages. Agilent and Shimadzu have built a strong single-quad business by appealing to their HPLC customers and by marketing their instruments for a wide range of applications with competitively priced systems. But this has also been true of Waters. However, Shimadzu has been able to pick up business through the coupling of its HPLC with Applied Biosystems' single quad, while Agilent's HPLCs are often paired with Thermo Finnigan's single quad MS instruments. In addition, vendors that chose to concentrate on either the single-quad or triple-quad LC/MS market can focus more resources on this market. Although Applied Biosystems does make a single quad system, this product line has never been as much of a focus of its activity as its triple quad LC/MS, which has been very successful. By participating in both markets simultaneously, a vendor's resources may be divided.
Waters' approach is to divide its LC/MS businesses by division. Waters handles the single quad LC/MS business, while Micromass handles the triple quad LC/MS product line. Both Thermo Electron's single and triple quad LC/MS product offerings are located in the Thermo Finnigan division. However, Thermo's mass spec offerings far outweigh its LC offerings, leaving it with a less comprehensive approach than Waters. However, Thermo has remained competitive as it has been able to approach both the single quad and triple quad market as one company, utilizing reputation and technology to distinguish itself in both markets.
Together, the single quad and triple quad LC/MS markets reflect what has enabled the fast growth and widespread use of MS techniques in general. The markets reflect the range of MS applications, technical advancements, the marketing strength and successful strategies of vendors, and the growth of pharmaceutical research. The markets also illustrate the specific demands that have made both markets, and the choices companies must make when approaching them, so challenging.