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Amid Swill and Swine, a DNA-Chip Reader is Born

NEW YORK, July 11 - Who needs the lush carpeting of a convention center to debut your biotech invention when you can do it amid corndogs, beer, and pig manure?

Next month, in a state known for its frigid winters, curious accent, hellish mosquitoes, and former pro-wrestler governor, a teeny local genomics tool shop will debut a novel pint-sized DNA-chip reader at the Minnesota State Fair.

 

"You know, we still have our day jobs," joked the tool's inventor, Marty Blumenfeld.

 

From his lab at the University of Minnesota at St. Paul, Blumenfeld developed the reader, which relies not on costly lasers but on LED technology, and in 1999 started a company, Blizzard Genomics, to commercialize it.

 

Though the market for DNA-chip screeners is already crowded with the likes of Agilent and PerkinElmer, Blumenfeld, a cell biologist, said his reader will be significantly smaller, lighter, and cheaper than the smallest, lightest, and cheapest scanner now available.

 

He said the only obstacle preventing him from building and commercializing the tool--which he claims will be the size of a toaster, weigh about 15 pounds, and cost half as much as the least-expensive comparable product without sacrificing read-quality--is roughly $5 million. (Current DNA-chip scanners are the size of  small copy machines, weigh as much as 100 pounds, and cost more than $75,000.)

 

Blumenfeld, Blizzard's chief operating officer, said he is confident the firm will launch the tool at the end of the year.

 

"It will be a heck of a garage sale," he quipped.

Frosty VC interest (and pass the ice cream)

 

When it makes its debut inside a University of Minnesota pavilion at the state fair next month, Blumenfeld's reader will be in a pre-beta stage, he said. Beta tests have been lined up--"We've got more than we know what to do with"--and Blizzard has already spoken with a number of undisclosed biotechs and pharmas that have shown an interest in the technology.

 

But getting companies like Blizzard off the ground in Minnesota isn't easy, Blumenfeld complained. Investors and potential partners "look at you and say, 'You have cold weather, you got mosquitoes, you got a wrestler for a governor, and we're not interested.'"

 

Although the state's university has a strong academic reputation and boasts a sizeable life-sciences program, it is eclipsed by the likes of Harvard, MIT, CalTech, and other marquis players.

 

"We've had nibbles [from investors], but they would say to us, 'We like what you have, but you need to move from here to X," Blumenfeld said. He added that the research muscle that helped him invent the chip reader is planted in Minnesota. Besides, even if his team would agree to do it, uprooting and moving to a more biotech-savvy state from its current headquarters in a converted tractor factory would be prohibitively expensive.

 

Still, Blizzard managed in 2000 to secure $1.6 million from Global Genomics, a Los Angles-based venture-capital firm. Of that initial seed capital Blizzard, which employs two people, has enough cash to last two or three more months, Blumenfeld said.

 

He reckoned the company now needs about $5 million to finish the development stage and begin building and marketing the tool--a formidable goal when the private-equity markets are well fed but seemingly quixotic these days.

 

The company has made strides, though: The chip reader is now in the hands of a team of engineers who will build it into a marketable product. Blizzard also has an undisclosed number of angel investors who have faith in the tool, and Blumenfeld said he has left the door open for corporate suitors.

 

"Whatever it takes [to get the reader on the market], we'll do it," he said. "Anything is possible as long as the price is right."

 

Informed by a reporter of the relative unorthodoxy of unveiling his complex genomic tool at a venue whose cuisine comprises corndogs, cold beer, cotton candy, and corn on the cob, Blumenfeld laughed.

 

"Minnesota, as you know, is not strong in biotechnology, and we're trying to attract interest any way we can," Blumenfeld said. "This is going to be really good publicity for the University of Minnesota and for Blizzard."

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