In a state known for its frigid winters, curious accent, hellish mosquitoes, and former pro-wrestler governor, a teeny local genomics tool shop announced the debut of a novel pint-sized DNA-chip reader at the state fair.
From his lab at the University of Minnesota at St. Paul, Marty Blumenfeld developed the reader, which relies not on costly lasers but on LED technology. In 1999 he started a company, Blizzard Genomics, funded by angel investors and $1.6 million from Global Genomics in Los Angeles, to commercialize it.
Though the market for DNA-chip screeners is already crowded with the likes of Agilent and PerkinElmer, Blumenfeld, a cell biologist and CSO of the company, says his reader will be significantly smaller, lighter, and cheaper than the smallest, lightest, and cheapest scanner now available.
He says 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 to finish the development stage and begin building and marketing the tool.
Blumenfeld’s reader is in a pre-beta stage, he says. 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 says. 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.’”
“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 says, though he credits research muscle in Minnesota for helping him invent the chip reader. And moving to a more biotech-savvy state from its current headquarters in a converted tractor factory would be prohibitively expensive.
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. Blumenfeld says he has left the door open for corporate suitors. “Whatever it takes [to get the reader on the market], we’ll do it,” he says. “Anything is possible as long as the price is right.”
— Kirell Lakhman