DALKEITH, UK -- Arrayjet, the 5-year old firm that began commercializing its microarray printers for automated high-throughput production earlier this year, will soon add new components to its system in an effort to make it the standard arrayer for research labs in the UK and abroad, Arrayjet officials told BioArray News here during a company visit last month.
According to Duncan Hall, the firm's director of sales and marketing, Arrayjet will add a Volume 12 Sample Connector Block to its AJ100 and AJ120 arrayers starting in September. The new component will allow users to print more arrays with less sample material, according to Hall.
"This will allow users to reduce the aspirated volume from 1.9֬ per sample per print to 0.7֬ per sample per print," he explained. "If you were using 30 slides, then you want to use less valuable sample material."
Hall also revealed that the company will release a 32 Sample Connector Block by the end of December, which will use only 0.5֬ per sample per print, and make the firm's printing system competitive with pin printers, which has been the company's objective since it was founded.
"This development will be the nail in the coffin for pin printers," Hall wrote in a follow-up e-mail to BioArray News. "We will be faster than most pin printers [and] we will be aspirating...a volume almost as low as some pin printers, yet we produce arrays of superior quality."
"This development will be the nail in the coffin for pin printers."
The new additions to the AJ100 will follow up on the release of the company's AJ020, an automated micro plate-stacker that can hold up to 48 separate plates and was released in early July (the difference between the AJ100 and the AJ120 is that the AJ120 comes with the stacker built in). All of the additional components reveal a company that is looking to enter the market based on the claimed flexibility and superiority of its technology.
Central to the company's technology is its inkjet print head, a fusion of the backgrounds of Arrayjet founders Peter Ghazal and Douglas Roy from the Scottish Center for Genome Technology and Informatics, and Howard Manning, a physicist who formerly worked at Xaar, a Cambridge, UK-based digital inkjet company, before devoting himself full-time to Arrayjet.
As witnessed by BioArray News, Arrayjet's technology uses techniques similar to other inkjet printers like those developed by Agilent Technologies, Canon, and others, but instead of dispersing the antibodies, DNA, or other samples through the back of the cartridge head and out of the nozzles, the Arrayjet print head actually sucks the samples up through its 100 nozzles and then prints them.
According to Manning, the firm's technical director, the print head Arrayjet uses actually comes from his old firm Xaar, where the company buys the heads for its machines. "There are no IP issues -- we simply buy the heads," Manning explained in Dalkeith. "Plus, the head is there for the lifetime of the machine."
Manning added that the inkjet head is easy to maintain and replace if needed, which gives it an advantage, in his opinion, over pin spotters, which need to be cleaned and require individual pin replacement when pins become jammed or broken.
While Manning has spent five years in perfecting his spotter, establishing faith in the technology appears not only to be part of Arrayjet's self-confidence as a commercial entity, but also its marketing strategy.
"The people who have experienced non-contact printing have been burned by it," Manning explained. "We have to rebuild their confidence in the technology. Our aim is to provide them with 'plug in and play.'"
Building a UK User Base
One of the first places that has been able to 'plug in and play' with Arrayjet's inkjet spotter has been the GTI, which is home to molecular biologist Peter Ghazal, Arrayjet's chief scientific officer, and Douglas Roy, the firm's lead advisor on microarrays.
While moving the internally developed unit into their lab, which includes equipment from Affymetrix, Agilent, and others, seemed like a natural choice, scientists at GTI insist that the AJ100 wouldn't be there if it could not handle the 700 protein arrays and 1,000 DNA arrays the center prints annually.
"We wouldn't be using Arrayjet if the technology didn't do the job," Colin Campbell, a GTI researcher, told BioArray News during a visit last month.
According to Campbell, GTI has collaborated with "the University of Glasgow, University of St. Andrews, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Dundee and the University of Cambridge."
Another perk that Arrayjet will get out of its partnership with GTI is its proximity to a new 900-bed Royal Infirmary at the University of Edinburgh Medical School facility where GTI is located. Campbell told BioArray News that contacts between the clinicians at the infirmary and GTI are close, and that the Arrayjet will be able to benefit from the feedback from these users.
Arrayjet co-founder and technical advisor Howard Manning stands next to the guts of an AJ120.
"The juxtaposition of GTI and the Royal Infirmary means that interactions with clinicians happen on a very flexible basis," Campbell said. "This leads to a good dialogue through which we develop an understanding of where clinical needs and opportunities exist for array technology."
According to Manning, another future Arrayjet offering will most likely be developed with GTI's assistance. The company plans to manufacture buffers for arraying samples on its machine that are individually tailored to the needs of the user.
"We are working with GTI to bring in some expertise," Manning said. "These [buffers] add another string to our bow. Everybody wins."
Another user Arrayjet has disclosed is Andrew Cossins at the University of Liverpool, who is a founding member of the Consortium for Post-Genome Science and the Center for BioArray Innovation, which pools the resources of array users from the University of Liverpool, the University of Manchester, and elsewhere.
Cossins did not respond to e-mails seeking comment on Arrayjet's technology. Hall said Arrayjet has other users but declined to name them at this time.
As Arrayjet's commercial activity heats up it is drawing more from the financial reserves it has accumulated over the past five years, mostly through a May 2003 round of fundraising that raised ñ million ($1.6 million), including õ00,000 from Archangels Informal Investments and ô00,000 from the Scottish Enterprises Investment Fund (See BAN 5/9/2003).
Robert Pattullo, a representative from Archangels, told BioArray News in an interview at GTI that one of the reasons Arrayjet had been able to develop its technology was because of Scotland's comfortable investment environment.
"Scotland has an easier climate for start-up companies than England," Pattulo explained, citing tax breaks for angel investors, who he said are less likely to pressure a company into rushing a product to market.
"We invest in people, foremost. We're not going to invest in any biotech," Pattullo said. Still, according to Arrayjet's Hall, the company plans at some stage of development to begin selling its systems in the US for high-throughput applications, and Pattullo admits that it will be "ruthlessly expensive" to set up a US office.
However, Hall said that the company is nowhere near entering the US market, although it is expanding its marketing effort into continental Europe.
"We are not ready to go to [the US] yet because the [upgrade] we'll need is significant. We'll go in due course," Hall said.
Part of that upgrade will include adding higher-throughput capabilities. "We have plans for a self-contained slide stacker that would increase on-board walkaway capacity to up to 1,000 slides," Hall wrote in an e-mail.
Manning also said that "more automated quality control" is in planning stages at the company. "Our current failure rate is less than 0.1 percent. When we have QC it would hopefully be something you couldn't measure," Manning said.
Hall also said that the company may be expanding its technology to suit other markets outside the microarray space.
"We have begun to consider applications and markets other than microarrays which might be addressed by our existing technology. We believe that we have identified some significant opportunities, and these will form the basis for future development projects at Arrayjet," Hall said.
-- Justin Petrone ([email protected])