Judging from the strong showing of home-grown companies at the recent EuroBiochips meeting in Berlin last week, a new crop of European — especially German — players is emerging in the microarray sector.
If they are successful, these new Euro-startups, along with more established companies trying to gain a toehold in the market, could prevent Affymetrix and other US-based microarray companies from holding on to a dominant market share in Europe. They also stand to provide the global market with a slew of second-generation microarray technologies.
Among the emerging microarray players present at the EuroBiochips meeting were German companies Memorec of Cologne, which offers a range of gene expression products and services, Advalytix of Munich, which just launched its Arraybooster automatic hybridization station, and febit of Mannheim, which makes the all-in-one geniom one microarraying machine; as well as UCB Chemicals of Drogenbos, Belgium, which has developed a new application for its chemical coatings in the microarray arena.
Memorec, founded in 1997 by a group of scientists from the University of Cologne, introduced its A-hyb, an automated hybridization workstation, at the conference. A-hyb works to actively spread the hybridization solution over the whole area of the slide, allows the user precise control of the hybridization temperature, and in doing so, increases the sensitivity of microarrays, the company said.
A system user can insert up to four slide arrays into a slide holder, then the holder slides into the machine, and sample is injected into it. The user then plugs in the parameters of the experiment on an ATM machine-like touch screen, in response to prompts.
This machine, which is scheduled to be launched at the end of July in Europe and to retail for under 50,000 euros, is just an offshoot of the company’s gene expression services business, said Uwe Janssen, the company’s vice president of business development. Memorec uses both SAGE, (serial analysis of gene expression) and cDNA arrays in this work, often in tandem. Memorec also sells its PIQOR arrays — the title stands for “parallel identification and quantification of RNA,” — directly to customers around Europe.
But when company scientists couldn’t find a reliable hybridization station, and various suppliers had repeatedly delayed their delivery of systems, they decided to build their own hyb station in collaboration with engineers at nearby Vulkan Tekni.
Now, seeing the market’s need for such machines, the company plans to expand on this instrumentation offering.
“Our bigger project in the company is to develop an expression profiling machine where hybridization, readout, and data processing” are automated, said Janssen. Memorec has recently closed its second round of financing, and is looking for a long-lasting research collaboration with a pharmaceutical or biotech company, Janssen said.
Memorec faces competition from Advalytix, an 18-month old startup out of Munich that also launched its automated hybridization system at the conference. The system, the ArrayBooster, uses standard microarray slides but employees sophisticated microfluidics to distribute the hybridization buffers and solution in a controlled manner. This microfluidics chamber, the “mixercard,” enables users to conserve part of the probe solution. In a presentation at the conference, Advalytix CEO Christoph Gauer presented data showing that the ArrayBooster increases the homogeneity and sensitivity of the array by a factor of five over manual hybridization, causing the most dramatic effects in large protein arrays.
Advalytix sees Ventana Medical Systems as foremost among its competitors, but is aiming for the lower end of the market, selling its ArrayBooster system for about 26,500 euros. Like Memorec, however, Advalytix also has its sights on more extensive machines in the future. “The next step is an automated wash, dry — the whole processing of the array in one step,” said Gauer.
In aiming toward this all-in-one system, Memorec and Advalytix are paying tacit tribute to febit, which has already created a stir with its geniom one automated microarray station, even though the system’s commercial launch is not slated until early next year.
Febit brought a model of its system to its booth: it is a box about the size of a small washing machine and has a little slot in the side for a single microarray slide.
When febit does introduce its machine to the general market, the target customer will be the researcher, rather than the high-volume pharmaceutical user, said a febit spokeswoman. Eventually, the company plans to expand its product lineup to include more high-throughput machines, she said.
Top Spot, Empty Nameplate
Another company that has made waves with its arrayer does not even have a name. The “top spot” robotic arrayer is slated to be the first product marketed by a new, as yet unnamed spinoff of HSG-IMIT, in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany. This nonprofit institute (the Hahn-Schickard-Gesellschaft in Microsystemtechnik) develops a number of micromachining technologies for companies from microfluidics and sensors to micro-dosage systems. One device that scientists at HGS-IMIT have developed is a microchannel non-contact spotting technology for microarrays that places up to 1,000 different nanoliter droplets of probe solution on a chip at once. GeneScan, in Freiburg, has used this technology to build its production system. But now, the demand is so high, the company said, that it is looking for a global partner to market this product.
Another entrant in the instrumentation arena, GeSim of Grosserkmandorf, Germany, is marketing its nano-plotter system for dispensing volumes from 0.1 nanoliter up to several microliters, in parallel. The system, which employs non-contact piezoelectric printheads and looks like a glass box with a couple of computers attached, can be used for the classic transfer of probes from microplates to microarray slides. But is not just a microarraying instrument: It can be used for micropipetting as well. The company has already sold several of these systems in Taiwan and Korea, in addition to its domestic sales, said a company spokesman.
Big Chem On The Scene
These startups are not the only ones getting in on the European biochip action: Larger players are entering the market too, if only in small ways. For example, UCB Chemicals, the maker of Zyrtec and polyurethane films, is applying its expertise in coatings to develop UC Bind, a functionalized glass slide with a patented chemistry that allows users to attach the DNA or proteins by polymer or silanization in a single coupling step. The slide also can be stored at room temperature, a company spokesman said, whereas the surface aldehyde slides will acidify within a few weeks at room temperature. Fellow Belgian company Eurogentec, of Liège, has already evaluated these slides, and plans to use them in its pre-fabricated arrays, according to a spokesman. UCB is also looking into developing flexible cellophane-based arrays that could be produced in sheets and used for diagnostics.
Go East, Young Man
Most of these players come from the traditional economic stronghold of western Europe, but biotechnology companies, institutions, and research facilities in the Berlin-Brandenburg area have also banded together to incubate a biochip industry in the former East Germany. Their network, the BioHyTec Association for Bioanalysis and Biohybrid Technology, “links interests, supports the formation and development of cooperation and coordinates the projects of the InnoRegio Consortium,” a German-government-sponsored initiative to develop a biotechnology industry in former East German areas, said Michael Barucki, a spokesman for the association.
According to Barucki, the network is implementing projects to develop biochips, and the biochip production facilities will be built in the Biotechnology Park Luckenwalde.