This article is the fifth in a series of bi-weekly columns focusing on the area of "high-throughput biology," or new techniques for high-volume cell based screening and imaging that biopharma is using to validate targets generated through genomics or proteomics, screen for toxicity, and replace other traditional assays. Links to previous columns in this series can be found below.
NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News), Feb. 9 - Researchers looking to discover a novel energy-inducing elixir that puts Starbucks out of the caffeination business might want to test the blood of Kevin Hrusovsky.
The CEO of Caliper Life Sciences, who took on this role when Zymark jumped into the company's skin last July, seems to be breathing new life into a business that was on biotech's death row. For instance, last Wednesday night during a party at Caliper's West Coast facility for scientists attending the Lab Automation 2004 conference, Hrusovsky took the microphone from the live rockabilly band that had been entertaining the scientists, and told them: "We won't sleep until you get what you need."
The company, he told them, is "committed to doing cell [assays] and calcium flux assays in high-throughput ways" on its LabChip microfluidic platform, and is committed to doing ion channel assays. And now that people have asked for RNA assays, the company is "committed to finding high-throughput ways to get to RNA on the LabChip 90."
Back at the Lab Automation conference, which ran between Feb. 1 and Feb. 5, Caliper launched its LabChip 3000, an automated instrument the size of a large washing machine, which uses the company's microfluidic chips to perform biochemical and cell-based screening assays. The instrument is an updated version of the Caliper 250 system, but has "a third [of] the footprint, and a lower price," Hrusovsky told GenomeWeb News in an interview a few days earlier in New York.
The LabChip 3000 runs common screening assays including kinases, phosphatases, proteases, and GPCRs, and can run for up to 16 hours at a time unattended, Caliper said. In the cell-based assay arena, it reads one cell at a time, and then adds up the measurements of responses through software algorithms.
This is the first product the company has introduced since the Zymark merger, and Zymark's liquid handling expertise went into its design, the company said.
The integration of the two companies in the wake of the merger has not been an issue at all, according to Hrusovsky. "It's really easy when you have weather like Boston does to come out here," he joked at the Caliper party.
Numerous Caliper employees confirmed in informal discussions with GenomeWeb News that the merger was good news for them. For members of the sales and services team at the old Caliper, it meant an amplification of their manpower many times over: The sales staff went from fewer than five at Caliper to about 60 at the combined company. The service team experienced similar gains, allowing some reps to shrink the territory they cover and service customers more.
Scientists even seemed happy about the merger, remarking that Zymark offered know-how in the commercialization and marketing arena that Caliper--which had been focused in R&D in its Mountain View facility--badly needed.
Is He for Real?
When Hrusovsky came on board in July, "the business and R&D were fighting" at Caliper, he said. To solve the problem, the company was adding vice presidents. "Some of the customers said, 'Caliper has great technology, but they are going to go bankrupt,'" he recounted last week. At the time of the merger, Caliper's revenues were falling and its debts were rapidly accumulating.
While acquisitions ordinarily involve clearing out the management from the company being acquired, in this case the company resolved the management problems at Caliper by appointing Hrusovsky--the former Zymark CEO--as chief executive of the combined company. The company also moved its headquarters from Mountain View, Calif., to Zymark's facility in Hopkinton, Mass.
Less than a month after the acquisition was complete, the company cleaned house. Fifty employees were laid off from the Mountain View facility, including nine vice presidents from Caliper. Now, five months after the layoffs and six months after the merger, the company appears ready to open its doors to interested customers.
The party for Lab Automation attendees included a tour of the lab for the company's microfluidic LabChips. While this lab does not appear to be running anywhere near capacity, tour leaders said the company currently runs four batches of chips a day, and pointed out the company's proprietary machinery that aligns and joins the silicon bottom of the chip with the top of the chip, which was being operated by cleanroom technicians in white bunny suit. Every chip is observed manually, and the yields are between 70 and 86 percent.
Inside the corridors of Caliper's Silicon Valley facility, it seemed that Hrusovsky's vision of integration for once was far away. The technological integration of the microfluidic technology with Zymark's robotics and liquid handling devices does not appear to have occurred yet.
Though the company did say it utilized Zymark's automation expertise in the new LabChip 3000, the booth setup at the Lab Automation conference also indicated that the two arms of the company are still largely separate. SciClone liquid handling systems and Twister microplate handlers inherited from Zymark sat at one end of the booth, while the LabChip sat at another.
While Hrusovsky seems to have found a way to integrate the company into a single team that is fired up and ready to score some customer wins, the next challenge it seems, will be to integrate the macro- and micro- ends of the company's technologies into a unified assay platform.
Other High-Throughput Biology Columns: