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454's Rothberg Targets the 'Personal Laboratory;' Startup RainDance Raises $23.7M

BOSTON – With Roche’s acquisition of 454 Life Sciences expected to close this quarter, CuraGen and 454 founder and former chairman Jonathan Rothberg isn’t wasting any time with his latest entrepreneurial venture.
RainDance Technologies, a lab-on-a-chip startup he co-founded in 2004, recently raised $23.7 million in first-round venture financing and plans to deliver the first version of its platform to customers later this year. 
In a keynote Tuesday at Cambridge Healthtech Institute’s Bio-IT World conference here, Rothberg said that the RainDance platform, called the Personal Laboratory System, is a “generalization” of a technology originally developed for the 454 sequencing platform: micron-sized droplets that capture and amplify DNA.
Rothberg said that the RainDance platform takes the droplet idea and moves it to a “universal” microfluidic chip that “does a lot more than sequence.”
According to Rothberg, who is also a RainDance director, the droplets are self-contained compartments that encapsulate biological samples using surfactant chemistry.
They float in a biocompatible oil that separates them while ensuring that the cells they contain remain alive. The droplets move through microfluidic channels that are preconfigured to enable a range of common laboratory tasks, such as formulate, load, combine, split, mix, store, detect, and so on.
These individual modules are assembled into so-called NanoReactors to perform specific experiments, including fluorescence detection, cell sorting, sample prep for DNA sequencing, drug screening, chemical synthesis, and more, Rothberg said.
RainDance’s goal is to enable the same kinds of advances for laboratory research that the personal computer and the Internet did for information technology, Rothberg said, describing the droplets as “packets of chemicals” that are analogous to the “packets” of information that are transferred today over the web.
Rothberg acknowledged that lab-on-a-chip technologies have been in development for around 30 years and have yet to see commercial success, but he noted that most microfluidics systems to date have taken a different approach that relies on micromechanical valves to separate fluids rather than discrete droplets. This approach, he said, is more difficult to fabricate because of the complex valve mechanisms, and also raises the risk of contamination when different samples are run through the same channel.
The main advantage of the Personal Laboratory System over previous lab-on-a-chip systems, Rothberg said, is the droplet-based approach, which ensures that the sample materials never touch the walls of the microfluidic channels and eliminates the risk of contamination. This capability makes the technology a good candidate for diagnostic applications, he said.
The NanoReactors are manufactured using injection molding, which could eventually cost as little as $1 per chip, he said. RainDance is currently hand-molding its prototype chips at a cost of $20 to $100 per chip.
Rothberg said that RainDance has received a milestone payment from Novozymes for a proof-of-concept project to use the PLS platform to improve enzymes for laundry detergent. In the project, he said, PLS was able to characterize bacterial strains at a rate of 1,000 per second.   
The company is also collaborating with Bayer to port several high-throughput screening assays to the PLS platform, he said.
The company expects to begin delivering systems to early-access customers later this year and to fully commercialize the platform in 2008.

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