Startup Bacterial BarCodes, a tech transfer company from Baylor College of Medicine, hit a high note this year when it was the only local company in Houston to receive venture capital funding in the first quarter.
If you ask the 25-person staff, the outlook is only getting brighter. And why shouldn’t it? With a product on the market, this genomics company already has a leg up on much of its strain-typing competition. CSO Mimi Healy says customers are everywhere: the company’s repetitive, sequence-based PCR fingerprinting technique can be used to type strains of organisms — critical for pharmas looking at drug efficacy and virulence; for hospitals trying to understand epidemiology; and for organizations involved in everything from biodefense to food testing.
“I think we’re relatively unique in offering that broad a range, certainly of identification of strains or typing,” Healy says.
The technology, developed by Jim Versalovic at Texas Children’s Hospital and Jim Lupski at Baylor, uses primers — usually between 30 and 500 bases long — specifically designed for the repetitive, non-coding regions in a bacterial genome. Because each primer binds so specifically, it can produce 20 to 25 amplified fragments in highly reproducible assays, Healy says.
“When you separate [the fragments], some are more intense and some are less” — causing a barcode-type appearance on the gels, she explains. Paired with the company’s software, the technology “can discriminate from genus and species all the way down to a strain,” Healy says. The company entered into a partnership with Caliper and now offers rep-PCR on Caliper’s lab-on-a-chip device.
Customers get the Caliper detection system and the computer that goes with it, various kits for bacterial and fungal typing, and a secure site for their data. “We’re actually a Web-based system,” Healy says. The data processing is done at Bacterial BarCodes, and users “can go locally or to another computer that has Internet access to [their] secure site and work with the data.”
That’s a model that has stymied vendors in the past selling to pharma companies, which usually prefer to keep data behind firewalls. But Healy says that’s not an issue for her firm. “We have done work for pharma, and our security system has passed their IT groups’ security measures. … We’ve had to jump through a lot of security hoops to get where we are.”
— Meredith Salisbury