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New Products Taking Center Stage in Life Sciences Discovery and Technology

Innovators and entrepreneurs behind the top technologies featured at SLAS2017 were armed with diverse discoveries that ranged from an advance in nucleic acid extraction, to an automated benchtop micropipettor, to a fully automated single cell transfection technology for adherent cells. The companies behind these new ideas in life sciences discovery and technology share what’s next.

Horacio D. Espinosa’s promising young company, infinitesimal (Skokie, IL) barely had time to put its new name on the door before receiving both a position on SLAS2017 Innovation AveNEW, which awards prime exhibit-floor space to emerging, start-up companies, and an SLAS New Product Award (NPA), which focuses on innovations that offer exceptional market impact and opportunity. Each year companies flock to SLAS to broadcast news of their latest ideas and leverage the Society’s unparalleled support for entrepreneurs in life sciences discovery and technology.

For infinitesimal, the exhibit space and award generated valuable awareness, validation and feedback from throughout the community for the company’s Nanofountain Probe single-cell electroporation system (NFP-E). “It is always difficult to appreciate how hard development of technology start-ups are,” says Espinosa, an SLAS Technology author and former editorial board member. “We discovered a lot of interest and excitement for the NFP-E at the SLAS2017 Exhibition. Finding that kind of feedback is invaluable.”

The co-founders of Clickbio (Reno, NV) had a similar experience. Only one year after they showcased their new company on SLAS2016 Innovation AveNEW, they found their exhibit booth at SLAS2017 flooded with enthusiastic crowds wanting to see and learn more about their latest products.

“The line waiting to see all the new designs and solutions we had was two- and three-people deep. It was really exciting. We wished that we had five people with us,” recalls Craig Vincze, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of the company. “Being on SLAS2016 Innovation AveNEW created demand for our product by establishing awareness of it. We cite SLAS Innovation AveNEW in our marketing materials because it’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

Richard Cote, president of Avidien Technologies (Hudson, MA) agrees. He knew from years of experience in the life sciences discovery and technology profession that the SLAS International Conference and Exhibition was the place to introduce both new companies and products. His five-year old enterprise entered the SLAS NPA competition and took home an award.

“There are always concerns regarding how on-target a product is during development, but for us, winning an SLAS2017 New Product Award (NPA) validated everything in one day,” says Cote about Avidien’s win for the MicroPro 300, a compact 96/384 benchtop pipettor.

According to Ian Hanegraaff, Managing Director of Analytik Jena US (Beverly, MA), persistence pays off in more than research and development. It also applies to achieving an SLAS NPA. “Every year we exhibit at SLAS and apply for an SLAS New Product Award, but didn’t receive one until this year. Perhaps we were showing something so deep in our wheelhouse that it didn’t strike the right chord,” he says. “Imagine if we gave up this year! Announcing all the innovations that you make and seeing what is most relevant to the members of SLAS is the way to go.”

Analytik Jena US’s SLAS2017 award-winning SmartExtraction is a global innovation in nucleic acid extraction that doesn't rely on phenol/chloroform, ion exchangers, filter columns, nor does it use suspensions of magnetic or paramagnetic particles.

Unbinding Life Sciences’ Tight Relationship with Silica

The path to an SLAS NPA for Analytik Jena US started with silica. “Chemists love silica. It gets roped into every technology we have for extraction. There’s always a silica component,” says Hanegraaff. “We asked, is silica necessary? Has anyone ever tried something else? A privately held company such as ours can engage in that line of thinking.”

The team at Analytik Jena US, a 25-year-old provider of analytical measuring technology and life sciences products headquartered in Jena, Germany, is not new to innovation. Starting in 2005, the company acquired several other businesses and found itself with a comprehensive portfolio, “but what we needed was an application or technology that could seamlessly tie all these products into a workflow that made sense to the customer,” says Hanegraaff. The company’s talented chemistry division began innovating its way to a solution.

A first step was the development of what Analytik Jena calls Dual Chemistry (DC) Technology, which uses a combination of chaotropic and non-chaotropic salts with low ionic strengths to overcome some of the problems with standard extraction. The eureka moment, however, came when chief scientific technologist Timo Hillebrand, Ph.D., and his co-worker Thorsten Stroh decided to eliminate silica in the extraction process.

This led first to the company’s patented Smart Modified Surface-Technology (SmartSurfaces), which involves uniquely modified surfaces for the binding of nucleic acids. Next came development of SmartExtraction, an innovation in nucleic acid extraction that binds and elutes high-quality, high-molecular weight and high-yield DNA through the up and down motion of any pipettor.

“Instead of relying on the suspension of magnetic or paramagnetic particles, we use SmartSurfaces to replace the traditional bead approaches or probe designs,” Hanegraaff explains. “Packing the SmartSurfaces inside an extraction tip and pipetting the reagents up and down into the pipette forces them to bind to a loop, making this process straightforward and easy to automate.” He adds that this simple, clean process offers high quality in both yields and purity of extracted nucleic acids and operates on any equipment.

The team had a great time demonstrating SmartExtraction’s prowess at SLAS2017, purifying DNA from a chicken breast. “We thought it was a great way to attract people and it was a bit different for us, more process-driven than tool-driven. It was certainly exciting,” Hanegraaff says. After the release at SLAS2017, Analytik Jena fielded many inquiries from companies wanting to add it to their platforms.

When he discusses future innovations, Hanegraaff mentions connecting analytical instrumentation and life sciences technologies. “I think that’s what people should expect to see from Analytik Jena in the future. We want to bring what typically are considered very different markets together with a combined solution that is more than the sum of its parts,” he says.

Written in Biomolecules

“Imagine a fountain pen but instead of using regular ink you have biomolecules, such as proteins, plasmids and RNA,” says Espinosa, the James and Nancy Farley Professor of Manufacturing and Entrepreneurship and Director of the Institute for Cellular Engineering Technologies at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, as he describes his SLAS NPA winner, the NFP-E.

First developed with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Nanoscale Science and Engineering Program during the nano revolution in the 2000s, Espinosa explains that the main objective of the original project was to develop an atomic-force microscopy probe that used microfluidics to supply a continuous deposit of nanoscale materials while achieving a sub-100 Nm resolution. What evolved was an instrument for localized electroporation of cells to deliver intercellular biomolecules.

Espinosa and Vincent Lemaitre, Ph.D., a research bioengineer for infinitesimal, anticipate a rapidly growing demand for their instrument. “Single cell research is becoming more and more important,” says Lemaitre, who demonstrated the system at SLAS2017. “There are many tools to study downstream applications of single cell research, but here we introduce an instrument to allow investigators to transfect cells at the single cell level.”

The NFP-E offers superior delivery efficiency and cell viability when compared with other transfection techniques such as bulk electroporation. Featuring an auto-contact algorithm with precise piezo-driven positioning, the NFP-E uses localized electric fields to open nanopores on the cell membrane of individual cells adhering on a regular culture dish or microwell plate for the efficient delivery of proteins and nucleic acids.

The technology is useful in many emergent applications such as stem cells for drug screening and cell therapies, cell line generation, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing and temporal gene activation detection via mRNA molecular beacons. In addition, the NFP-E also can work in conjunction with personalized and precision medicine applications in which cells from a specific patient are used.

“All these applications represent a market of over $1 billion for cell transfection, and that’s what made the case for the introduction of the technology into the market,” Espinosa says. “Many of these applications have potential for doing better screening using the NFP-E.”

For the future, he sees the company expanding the cell analysis component of the technology. “We want to sample proteins from inside the cell and conduct a temporal analysis to determine gene activation and cell state,” Espinosa explains.

An App in Hand is Worth Two Bodies in the Lab

When his team discovered a unique pipetting technique, Cote thought they could build something with enough strength to support a business. “We saw a gap that opens up in the pipetting process as researchers progress in their assay development,” Cote explains. “There is a point where hand-held pipettors become a time-consuming task, and yet there isn’t enough lab space, budget or production needs for the larger automation already on the market.”

The MicroPro 300 is the culmination of five years’ worth of hard work to meet the market need. “We started in 2012 and spent the first nine months to a year working out the innovative features of the product and prototyping a few aspects of it such as the tip-loading system. After that it was an evolution of prototypes,” says Cote.

The team at Avidien worked around the clock developing those prototypes for their benchtop liquid handling system. “As our sales continue to grow, we will bring new people onboard, but for now we are all wearing multiple hats,” says Cote. “Just today, in fact, the engineers are producing videos for the website that demonstrate the instrument’s capability. Pictures are worth a thousand words, but videos are worth even more.”

Controlled with an app on an Apple iPad Mini connected via Bluetooth communication, the MicroPro 300 allows researchers to use the platform’s pipetting depth recall function to set, store and use a virtually unlimited number of containers with completely customizable depth settings, as well as save complex programs for multi-step assays using touchless tip ejection. The instrument’s compact size accommodates crowded lab benches and offers contamination control by easily fitting into a fume hood or biosafety cabinet.

“At this stage we’re teaming up with distributors across the U.S. The plan is to expand to Europe next year,” says Cote. In addition, the company is focusing on ideas that relate to multi-channel liquid handling platforms, including expanded volume ranges for our 96-channel instruments, 384-channel pipettors and accessories to complement them.

Because the app received such positive feedback, Cote says the company will pursue other automation products that could benefit from an easy-to-use interface. “We have had a lot of requests for this. It is important to make certain that you are continuously in contact with potential end users so that you know that the decisions you make about your product and its configuration are in line with what the market wants,” he says.

Regardless of what’s next, Avidien’s plans include a return to SLAS2018. “We want to maintain our presence every year at the SLAS Exhibition. It’s a perfect fit for our products.” 

Rocket Fuel for Future Success

When the judges for the SLAS2017 NPAs announced winners on the final day of the three-day Exhibition, Cote found his booth filled with well wishers wanting to see the product. “We thought we were wrapping up those last-day demonstrations, but after we won, we were busy the rest of the day up until the Exhibition closed,” he comments.

Avidien’s distributors use their status as an SLAS New Product Award winner in their marketing. ”It’s a great way to cut through the fog of the many other messages that your target audience receives. The marketing messages that get through are those that include elements of familiarity and trust,” says Cote.

Hanegraaff agrees. “The exposure that we received as an SLAS NPA winner and the fact that we took our win back to the office and incorporated it into our own marketing was helpful to getting us where we want to go,” he concludes.

The impressive credentials behind the selection process are what give the SLAS NPA its luster and credibility. SLAS engages distinguished judges from all walks of its life sciences membership to critically evaluate the promise of groundbreaking innovations.

Examining the 40 contenders for the NPA at SLAS2017 and determining the top three considered to be most exceptional were:

Apply Now!

Applications for SLAS2018 Innovation AveNEW are due Oct. 16. SLAS2018 will be held Feb. 3-7, 2018 in San Diego, CA.

July 24, 2017