Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Supply Stall Slows Singular

Singular Genomics reported earnings last week and delivered an unpleasant surprise: inability of suppliers to make timely deliveries of key (but unspecified) hardware components have slowed G4 instrument production to a very slow crawl.  Given the lively competition in the desktop short read space, this is a serious setback for Singular's commercial launch.  
 The folks over at Seeking Alpha have a transcript of the earnings call Q&A session, where many of the details were brought out.  Due to the inability to procure key components, instrument production for the next quarter will apparently be used to build up the company's own fleet.  In the last quarter they hope to deliver to customers -- but with only one to two instruments rolling out each month that will mean very few customers will be able to take delivery this year.  Singular is giving cautious guidance for next year, suggesting that two to four instruments per month might be the initial output.

I can't begin to imagine the frustration in the Singular organization.  They're one of multiple new entrants gunning for Illumina's NextSeq market and the low end of the NovaSeq market.  There's a number of aspects of the Singular platform that may be very enticing for customers.  For example, the G4 can have16 independent lanes per run (4 flowcells each with 4 lanes) to avoid pooling very different samples - avoiding the "how'd that sample monopolize the flowcell?" problem. They claim a strong cost advantage over Illumina, though comparisons I've seen suggest that Element is still less expensive.  Their extra high accuracy HD-Seq product (not yet launched) may be of interest for short read applications where single molecule accuracy (claimed to be Q50) is critical, such as rare variant detection.  A synthetic read scheme called XR-Seq is in the works and claims to handle inputs up to 3kb.  Singular has also been executing library preparation partnerships with a range of major kit producers.

And then something largely outside their control pulls the rug out from under the launch planning! Now that salesforce must not only convince customers to go with them and not backslide to Illumina, take a flyer on Element, wait for PacBio's offering or maybe take BGI for a spin, but now convince customers to wait for G4s that may or may not be delivered on time. Worse, imagine if you want multiple instruments either to handle high volume or to at least have some redundancy?  If you are depending on getting an instrument at a certain time, all this uncertainty may be a risk you don't wish to take on.  Certainly the competition's sales forces aren't going to tread lightly around Singular's troubles - if your opponent is stuck tying their shoes at the starting block you don't wait for them to finish before heading for the tape!

Singular management also clearly sees a need to thread a needle here around their two-pronged business strategy -- they emphasized that they have kept the G4 sequencer and PX spatial instrument technical teams separate.  Well, mostly so -- a few PX-ers have been pulled off onto G4.  I've always wondered of the risk of trying to develop two complex instruments in near parallel - I'd prefer for my pessimistic case not to come true here.

Singular's management did point to the current slowdown in biotech activity as a potential salve.  With the crash of the public biotech markets many companies are slowing down and tightening belts, unsure when (or if) they will be able to go public.  So perhaps some potential purchasers are putting off buying a sequencer, and if their delay matches Singular's then that works out.  But that doesn't help Singular with the academic core labs they're hoping to target and the delay in purchasing could well abate before Singular is well stocked with hardware.

If nothing else, this is a reminder than no matter how good the plan and how careful the execution, external events play an outsized role in the fortunes of companies.  It's good to be good, but sometimes it's better to be lucky!


Anonymous said...

This whole "delay" smells of a smokescreen for bigger fundamental technical issues for the G4 that need to be resolved. I find it hard to believe that a blunder of this magnitude could be strictly limited to an inability to find parts especially when management gave no indication as soon as 1 month ago on investor calls that anything was awry. Remember, Wall Street guided for over 40 instrument placements this year. One thing that really bothered me was how little color was provided on the 1 instrument they placed in June. What's the reagent pull through? Who is this customer? Is the box being used for research or clinical use? Many questions and not a lot of answers.

Anonymous said...

Supply chain issues when you have so far only placed one instrument is hard to understand. Had they plan their launch without having ensured parts to build at least 10 units? Even if true, it says a lot about their management.

Anonymous said...

Look at turnover in commercial that has already occurred within a short time; President, CCO, Sales Dir and most all US sales reps.