Bar Harbor Biotechnology, a two-year-old Jackson Laboratory spinout based in Trenton, Maine, that launched a suite of gene-expression-related products in late 2007, plans to begin selling a number of new tools this year.
Bar Harbor Biotech President Robert Phelps told BioArray News this week that the company is likely to debut three products over the course of 2009. The first, set to debut in the spring, will measure gene expression in drug therapy treatments, especially related to oncology, and will be tailored to meet the needs of Bar Harbor’s pharma clients.
The second, to follow during the summer, will quantitate proteins and will be designed more with academic customers in mind. The third will launch towards the end of the year for gene-expression research.
Phelps declined to provide further detail on the new products, citing increased competition for medium-throughput gene-expression technologies.
Although Phelps acknowledged that the global financial downturn has affected a widening patch of biotech companies, he said that 2008 was a “banner year” for Bar Harbor Biotech and others that sell lower-cost products for gene expression. During the year, the firm expanded its sales and marketing resources.
After closing a round of Series A financing for an undisclosed amount, Bar Harbor in October 2007 launched a suite of gene expression-related products it calls “the Perfect Circle” (see BAN 9/11/2007).
The central platform in the suite is Bar Harbor’s StellArray Gene Expression/CNV System, which the firm calls a “pre-manufactured standard plate loaded with oligonucleotide primers” that are “applicable for gene expression as well as gene copy number analyses.”
StellArrays are RT-PCR arrays manufactured on 96- or 384-well plates. Scientists can use their own qPCR instruments to analyze the plates, a setup aimed at allowing them to quantitate gene expression and measure genomic copy number in a single homogeneous reaction, Bar Harbor said on its website.
The Perfect Circle also includes Bar Harbor’s GeneSieve Bioinformatics tool, which enables users to trawl through publicly available databases for useful gene-expression relationships and chromosomal locations.
Another informatics tool, the Global Pattern Recognition algorithm, takes the qPCR data from a user’s experiment and “generates a ranked hit list of statistically significant changes between the test groups without reliance on the magnitude of the fold-change.”
Phelps said this week that the algorithm “eliminates the need for customers to reselect and normalize their genes. Normalizer genes can shift during the experiment process and influence results, [and] GPR enables [an] experiment to determine which genes are changing and aren’t changing. That is, by far, our key differentiator” among rivals.
Bar Harbor’s first StellArrays were available for researchers studying 43 biological pathways in mouse. In March 2008, the company added arrays for studying 46 biological pathways linked to diseases such as obesity, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's in human.
Phelps said that Bar Harbor is currently building on those product lines; will soon make available arrays that include 60 biological pathways for human and mouse; and is working on a toxicity-themed array for rat.
All of this development has been supported through Bar Harbor’s initial Series A financing plus a $335,000 award from the Maine Technology Institute. Bar Harbor has not decided yet whether it will seek Series B funding.
“We are going to look at our sales revenue growth from December to April  before we make a call on that,” Phelps said.
From Bar Harbor to Basel
While Bar Harbor readies its new arrays, it is trying to take advantage of an exclusive sales agreement with Basel, Switzerland-based chemical and biotechnology company Lonza Bioscience.
The agreement, in force since last July, made Lonza sole global distributor of Bar Harbor Biotech’s StellArray products. According to a Bar Harbor statement, Lonza sees StellArray as a complementary technology to its cell discovery business, forming a “complete cell analysis system," in the words of Lonza President Shawn Cavanagh.
“We now have the global reach that five guys in a garage in Maine didn’t have before.”
The agreement with Lonza gave Bar Harbor a “great opportunity” to expand its presence, Phelps said.
Lonza, which posted sales of CHF 2.87 billion ($2.6 billion) in 2007 and has offices worldwide, “has the established sales and distribution channels already in place,” he said. “For us, it was a dream come true. We now have the global reach that five guys in a garage in Maine didn’t have before.”
Last year, Lonza acquired Cologne, Germany-based Amaxa, which sells transfection systems to the cell-discovery market. “Lonza’s background is making primary human cells. The Amaxa products allow them to transfect those cells and use the StellArrays to measure those changes,” Phelps said. “From Lonza’s perspective, they have created a great product mix.”
Phelps added that Bar Harbor is currently satisfied with its sales arrangement with Lonza, and will consider working with the company to sell the products currently in development.
“As we look to launch these new products, a couple of them lend themselves to new fields, and we are still evaluating whether we will sell them ourselves or add them to the agreement with Lonza,” he said.
According to Phelps, Bar Harbor recorded a “banner year” in 2008 that saw increased adoption of its flagship products, which he attributed to the firm’s lower-cost products, compared to higher-throughput microarray platforms or second-generation sequencing.
“There has been a recession in biotech as a whole now that you could put back as far as 2003 when the [National Institutes of Health] budget [began to flatten],” Phelps said. “The nice thing about that for us is that our products are designed for researchers to make use of existing capital equipment. Our plates are designed to work on RT-PCR instruments, so researchers can get more science done without having to go out and get capital equipment grants.
“I know it has been a difficult market, but we happen to be at the right place at the right time with the right product to have those forces working in our favor,” added Phelps.
Accompanying the growth in sales has been increased competition from players like Frederick, Md.-based SABiosciences, formerly Super Array, and Tucson, Ariz.-based High-Throughput Genomics. Both companies have been readying new products and have boasted of increased adoption of their technologies.
Bar Harbor also competes against the Taqman RT-PCR arrays sold by Lonza’s neighbor in Basel Roche and Life Technologies, which was created last year when Invitrogen merged with Applied Biosystems.
Jeff Hung, director of marketing at SABiosciences, told BioArray News this week that his firm’s PCR arrays “gained significant customer acceptance” in 2008, citing “300 peer-reviewed articles” that mentioned use of the technology that year.
Last March, SABiosciences began selling microRNA PCR arrays and it subsequently added a line of arrays for DNA methylation profiling to its menu. Both new product lines have “generated a lot of interest and received high remarks from customers,” Hung said.
“We did great in 2008 financially, continuing our strong growth trajectory” (see BAN 3/18/2008).
Four months later the company, which employs 150 staffers, moved into a new 43,000-square-foot facility in Frederick (see BAN 7/29/2008).
For its part, HTG also plans to launch several new products this year. Specifically, the firm hopes to make mid-density gene expression arrays available by mid-year, followed by whole-genome expression arrays available by year end (see BAN 10/21/2008).
HTG’s flagship platform is the ArrayPlate 96-16, which uses the firm’s quantitative Nucleic Protection Assay, or qNPA, to measure gene expression. While the company’s quantitative Nucleic Protection Assay arrays do not compete directly against Bar Harbor’s StellArrays, the two firms do attract similar customers, according to Phelps.
“We are all competing for the same pots of money,” he said.