An engineer takes on LIMS
Dave Champagne, head of Thermo's informatics division
Anyone who watches the TV show CSI will be familiar with the name Thermo - it appears on almost every piece of high-tech lab equipment the show's characters use.
But lab work is not only about the hardware; nowadays, it is just as much about the software that analyses and presents the results and how the data from a variety of instruments can be integrated. Thermo has not been slow to develop its offerings in this area and, with its ambitions set on being the leading player in this area, it has turned to someone who has been in the package software business virtually since it began.
Dave Champagne, the recently appointed head of Thermo's Informatics Division, is not a scientist, nor even a software guru: he is a practical man who comes from a manufacturing background rather than life sciences or pharma. Colleagues say his strengths are hands-on management and in understanding process, and as a leader of men rather than as a boffin. He came into the software business from more traditional manufacturing, and virtually had to invent software manufacturing from scratch for a company that did rather well at it - Lotus Development. His ambition is to make Thermo the standard suite of laboratory software.
Rick Lanchantin, director of Thermo Informatics global services business, has been working with Champagne since the Lotus days nearly 20 years ago. He says: 'Lotus was at one time one of the largest publishers and consumers of paper in the world, so they brought in professional production people to figure out the production side of it. Dave came from an engineering background and, in fact, that mindset is helpful now because a lot of our informatics products currently are used by pharmaceutical quality control, which is very manufacturing and process oriented. He understands process very well, and our software has a lot to do with laboratory workflow.
'Most people who meet him like him. He is a regular guy in that he likes sports. He is thoughtful and polite with people. He does little things that go a long way in getting people to like him and feel valued. One of his great strengths is that he is a good listener, and good at getting people to collaborate.
'He does not shy away from jumping into something. He is good at seeing through numbers to what they mean. But he is also good with the human side of things.
'What he brings to Thermo is a very deep understanding of the software business. Thermo is traditionally strong in the capital equipment side, rather than enterprise software. Most of the assets are people, and the selling cycles are very different. He knows how to sell enterprise software and he knows how software development works.'
Champagne was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, an industrial town in the centre of the state. His family was originally 'blue collar' French Canadian. His father worked in paper mills all his working life. Most of his relatives had trades, and he made a little money in vacations working for them. His passion as a young man was playing ice hockey.
He says: 'My father was a big role-model for me growing up. He worked hard for everything that he had, with limited education, and made the most of himself.'
'My father used to take me into the paper mills to see the massive machinery, which got me interested in industrial engineering. I studied industrial engineering at Massachusetts and I think I was doing what my father wanted me to do, that is get a degree and work in industry. I put myself through school.'
His first job after graduating was in the industrial rubber products division of Armstrong World Industries, a huge conglomerate. He did classic industrial projects, such as time and motion studies and cost reduction work.
He says: 'I loved it. I was definitely doing something that I enjoyed, being in factories. The people were genuine people, like those I grew up with.
'It was a very large company and very conservative and I looked around at people who had made careers doing this sort of thing. I thought it would be hard for me to progress and when my boss left to join American Tourister, a large luggage maker, he asked me to join him. He was setting up a whole new industrial engineering department there. The company had just been purchased by a Wall Street-listed diversified manufacturer. We totally revamped five manufacturing plants with modern methods and automation. We were like kids in a candy store, with carte blanche to spend the right money to modernise these factories, which was a lot of fun.'
After a few years, he was asked to become a plant manager. He started a family and his employers paid for him to study for an MBA. While it was a very hard period for him, he believes it paid dividends.
He says: 'One of the guys went to work for a start-up company in Cambridge, Mass., called Lotus, and he asked me to join him. I was feeling pretty good about myself at the time, and I could see the writing on the wall that manufacturing in the North East was going to die out. This was an awesome opportunity for me to apply my knowledge and background in a new industry. I did a little research, and it looked promising. They had a vacancy for a manufacturing manager. They did not quite know what manufacturing meant, because it was a brand new industry. They decided to try and find someone with a manufacturing background who would figure out how to do it. When I started, floppy disks were manufactured by hand. I went in and set up some clean rooms, and worked with some suppliers on disk duplication machines.
'It was like printing money. Lotus went public just as I joined, and did $53m in its first year. We couldn't make the stuff fast enough. I put in a lot of the early manufacturing for the software industry. I took over an old factory, and set up an automated manufacturing line. When I finished that, they asked me to build another in Dublin, and then I went to Singapore where I did a tax and training deal with the government there.'
He returned to the US to run the North American operations, but then the company asked him to try and bring some order to the customer service operation. He developed a services strategy for the company, and they then asked him to take over running all the customer services around the world. Later they added in the consulting operations, building Lotus Notes applications and high level consulting. He loved it.
In 1995, IBM bought Lotus, and made Champagne a deal he could not refuse. He remained for about 18 months after the takeover. He saw parts of his operation integrated into IBM's operations and, while he liked the top management at the time, he did not get on well with career 'IBMers' in the middle management. It was not the dynamic company that he joined and, eventually, he decided to move on.
He said: 'I decided I wanted to build something again, and I started doing some early-stage stuff working with venture capitalists.' He learned the things that you don't really get in a large company, such as raising finance and dealing with investors.
In 2002, he took some time off to play golf. He had done well financially from his career, and decided to recharge his batteries. In 2003, a friend told him about an opportunity at Thermo, which the friend thought would suit him, managing the services operation of the software division. His old friend from Lotus, Jim Manzi, who had been Lotus's chairman, president and CEO, was on the board of Thermo at the time, so he called to talk about the company. Soon after Champagne joined, Manzi became chairman of Thermo and the long association means he has no problem getting the attention of the top layer in the company. Whether that is a good or bad thing, he will not say!
He says: 'It looked to me that the opportunity for applying processes and automation to life sciences was ripe. At its heart, Thermo is an instrument company but software and services is the fastest growing part. We have grown rapidly, partly organically, and partly though the acquisition of InnaPhase. The Thermo informatics operation had good world coverage and an excellent services operation. I came in to run it, but I think I brought it up a notch. I helped bring the sales force up a bit in terms of their capabilities. InnaPhase had world class software development and the combination of that with Thermo's brand and scale has proved to be a great one. This has been a great ride.'
When Thermo bought InnaPhase for $67m last year, its CEO, Dr Jo Webber, became head of the new informatics division which merged InnaPhase with the former ThermoLabSystems. Webber stayed about six months with the new company before announcing that she was retiring to go sailing in the Mediterranean Sea.
Champagne has big plans for the company. He says: 'We have a very ambitious new product development schedule. It is very strategic in that we are moving more of our applications to more modern architectures. We want them to be more of an integrated platform for the lab - a suite of applications, rather than a selection of point applications. We are moving Darwin to .net, we are going to leverage that core functionality across the whole product line and gain efficiencies and robustness. We want the look and feel to be the same, so that training is reduced. We are taking a page out of the Microsoft Office playbook. I enjoy being in builder mode again.
'Our strategy right now is to develop LIMS for vertical markets that are very deep, with out-of-the-box functionality. The whole market is still very fragmented, and we are aiming for market leadership. We are looking at in silico software at the moment. We are trying to do some real marketing, understanding what the growth dynamics are, and whether it is one that we can lead. We are not interested in getting into a market that may not be mature enough to justify the investment. We are a big machine with a big sales force, so we have to look at the payback. There are a lot of things that we can do; the challenge is to decide what we are not going to do. We want to get into markets when the acceptance is there and there is enough volume for us.'