EDINBURGH, UK — Sensing a rebound in demand for microarray spotters, Arrayjet last week announced a distribution agreement with Salt Lake City-based tool vendor BioMicro Systems that will allow the seven-year-old UK firm to access the North American market as it rolls out a new, lower cost system to bring users into the fold.
Under the terms of the agreement, BioMicro, known widely for its MAUI hybridization station, will begin selling Arrayjet's three systems — the Marathon, the Super-Marathon, and the newly launched Sprint — to customers in North America. According to a BioMicro, the agreement with Arrayjet is more of a partnership than a distribution pact, and could pave the way for additional opportunities in the future.
Graham Miller, CEO of Arrayjet, said last week that the deal with BioMicro and the Sprint roll-out signal a shift in Arrayjet’s development from a start-up to a more active player in the tools market. Moreover, he said that Arrayjet's ascent into the tools market coincides with an uptick in the demand for array spotters in general.
Miller spoke to BioArray News during Select Biosciences' Advances in Microarray Technology meeting held here last week.
"We see evidence," Miller said of the growing demand. "We are talking to people and getting inquiries from people in relation to the applications. These are perhaps taking existing DNA microarray products and applying them to the diagnostics space," he said. “We also see companies that are interested in printing proteins and antibodies and things like that. So those are all new opportunities," he added.
The market today is not what it was two years ago when Arrayjet first launched its technology, Miller said. A variety of factors, from the need of many facilities to replace aging arrayers to an increase in the number of array-based applications, has helped drive interest in Arrayjet’s products in recent months. It's also encouraged other firms, like Aushon Biosystems and Wasatch Microfluidics, to develop new spotting technologies (see BAN 4/17/2007, BAN 12/12/2006).
"I think that people that have been using pin spotters were just kind of making the best of a bad job for a while and just accepted the technology. Many of these tools are now beyond their research shelf life," Miller explained. "The answer is that the people that we are talking to now are saying that they do need to buy a new spotter and contact printing is not an option; it has to bring something new to the party."
The difference now, Miller said, is that "people are beginning to apply what they know about DNA to actual diagnostic applications. There’s always been the ambition to do that. But in the last couple of years we have seen people actually trying to apply that technology for real clinical use."
To take advantage of those opportunities, Arrayjet is launching the Sprint, a lower priced benchtop version of its Marathon and Super-Marathon industrial spottters that the firm hopes will lure in new customers that are interested in testing out Arrayjet's technology before they invest in a higher-throughput machine.
All three instruments use Arrayjet's non-contact inkjet printing technique, which uses a printhead to draw in fluids before arraying them at various throughputs. The Marathon, previously known as the Aj100, offers users the ability to print up to 100 slides from six 96-well or 384-well microtiter plates, while the Super-Marathon, formerly called the Aj120, enables users to run 48 microtiter plates in one run. Additional plates can be added manually to both machines. Both systems are priced in the neighborhood of £100,000 ($197,000).
The Sprint, on the other hand, can load and print 20 microarray slides from two microtiter plates — 96-well or 384-well — in a walkway mode. Two further plates may be added when the instrument is set to relay mode. Due to its lower throughput, the Sprint system is about half the price of the company’s other systems, at around £50,000, making it more affordable to target customers in the R&D market, Miller said.
"We felt that we needed to offer something that was lower priced so that we could offer people the opportunity to try the technology. It’s going to make the technology more accessible,” Miller explained.
"It’s smaller as well and it has a lower capacity, and the reason for that is that we want people to have the opportunity to optimize their buffer and substrate combinations so they can optimize the system and perhaps contemplate scaling up to a larger system," he added.
The Global Market
So far, Arrayjet has placed its systems at a variety of institutions, mostly in its UK home market. Arrayjet spotters are currently in use at the Division of Pathway Medicine at the University of Edinburgh — formerly known as the Scottish Center for Genomic Technology and Information — and also at the Roslin Institute, also located in Scotland.
"The people that we are talking to now are saying that they do need to buy a new spotter and contact printing is not an option; it has to bring something new to the party."
A future UK-based user will be the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London, according to Duncan Hall, the firm's sales and marketing director. Hall told BioArray News this week that Arrayjet expects to place three more in coming months — two in North America and one in Asia.
To date, Arrayjet has seen some interest in the North American market, first through the placement of a system at the University of Miami last year, and more recently through a collaboration with Invitrogen. Specifically, Invitrogen has been evaluating Arrayjet's technology for printing its ProtoArray protein arrays and Invitrogen presented a poster demonstrating the feasibility of this at the AMT meeting. Both placements have been supported from the UK.
Barry Schweitzer, director of Invitrogen's protein array center, told BioArray News here last week that Invitrogen is "still in the process of evaluating the technology." He said that Invitrogen currently uses "contact printers with quill-type pins" but declined to name what company supplies its instruments.
According to BioMicro CEO Michael Feldman, the distribution pact with Arrayjet means Arrayjet products, including the Sprint, are available immediately in North America. But Feldman said that it also signals a shift in BioMicro's own strategy as the company moves beyond solely selling its own products, like the MAUI hyb station.
"I am looking at developing BioMicro into a company that’s known for innovative technology; that provides solutions that help the researcher improve the quality of data, throughput, and consistency," Feldman told BioArray News last week.
"I have come to the conclusion that [the Arrayjet platform] is a technology that complements the hybridization platform in a number of different ways. It offers a technology that is flexible for the different kinds of molecules that are emerging in the marketplace today. It offers, in combination with our hybridization platform, an opportunity for researchers to customize their approach," he said.
"We view this as more of a partnership that just a distribution agreement," Feldman said. In addition, he said BioMicro is looking to add to its portfolio in coming months. Feldman said that the company has a wash system in development at the point of beta testing, and that the system could reach the market by the third or fourth quarter, but he declined to further discuss the new product.
For Arrayjet, an immediate goal is to find a similar partner to cover the European market outside of the UK. Miller said that Arrayjet has so far "not been very successful in finding the right partner" but attributed the difficulty to a lull in a market that has only recently picked up.
"I think a good part of that has been that there’s a bit of a malaise in relation to the market for spotters," he said. "I think [a few years ago] people were not that excited about the opportunity, so we see that changing now because the opportunities are changing," he said.