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Febit’s Analyzer, Synthetic Bio Service to Launch in ’08 as Focus Turns to miRNA

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Febit Biotech plans to commercialize its synthetic biology service and its benchtop RT-Analyzer within the first two quarters of 2008, pushing back a launch date originally scheduled for this year in order to build relationships with early-access partners, according to a company official.
 
Chief Scientific Officer Peer Stähler said that the firm has been working with a few partners through the Synbio subsidiary it established earlier this year, but that it has taken more time than expected to ramp up for a full launch of the synthetic biology service.
 
So far, the company has shipped 15 genes to “a few selected private customers,” and plans to ramp up its capabilities by next spring,” Stähler told BioArray News this week. “Right now our capacities can only serve a few projects. We are ramping up capacity in the next few months — the infrastructure, the team, the operators, this is all in a very early phase,” he said. “This is the phase where you go from R&D to full production.”
 
Stähler told BioArray News in May that the company intended to launch its synthetic biology service by the end of this year. The firm is using its flagship Geniom One array synthesizer to design, fabricate, and sell genes for use in various applications (see BAN 5/22/2007).
  
Stähler acknowledged the delay in getting the Synbio service to the market, but said that Febit, as a small, privately owned company, has limited resources. “It takes time,” he said. “If we were large corporation, it would take less time, but because we are a start-up it will take a bit longer.”
 
Despite the delay, Febit is already laying out its plans for reaching US customers. Rather than open a US office specifically for the Synbio subsidiary, Febit has decided instead to offer synthetic biology services through its own US office in Boston. Stähler pointed out that many of the firm’s customers in regional academic centers like Boston or San Francisco have shown an interest in obtaining synthetic genes.
 
“We see an overlap in customers with Geniom instruments in the US, especially in innovative environments in San Diego, San Francisco, Boston, and elsewhere,” he said. A vehicle for reaching more customers will be the debut of an online portal sometime in the first or second quarter of next year where customers can order genes.
 
To build up a user base, Febit plans to place Geniom systems with academic users capable of synthesizing genes or other DNA-reagents on the condition that they do not attempt to manufacture and sell these genes themselves.
 
“There are a lot of useful purposes why you should synthesize thousands of oligos overnight and we want to work with pioneers in the field,” Stähler said. “But this would not be available for a gene-synthesis company. Any commercial entity who wants to use a biochip should talk to us about license issues or patent issues,” he said.
 
Indeed, intellectual property issues in the nascent synthetic biology field have weighed heavily on Febit’s mind in recent months. In July the firm sued competitor Codon Devices for patent infringement, alleging that the firm, which also sells synthetic genes, has been using a technology similar to Febit’s to manufacture its product (see BAN 7/17/2007).
  

“It takes time. If we were a large corporation it would take less time, but because we are a startup it will take a bit longer.”

Stähler said that Febit is following up the law suit in “full speed” and noted that the company recently hired a chief legal officer, David Mahoney, who operates out of Febit’s Boston office and will be the “project manager” for the litigation. Stähler said that the Boston office in general is “changing dynamically” and will have to move soon to a larger facility.
 
miRNA and the RT-Analyzer
 
After Synbio, another Febit product that will see its full commercial launch next spring will be the RT-Analyzer, a benchtop version of the Geniom One minus the ability to synthesize arrays. The RT-Analyzer will enable users to run array experiments. Because of its smaller size and reduced functionality, the system will cost slightly less than $100,000, Stähler said. The Geniom One sells for north of $200,000.
 
The RT-Analyzer is in testing now and the company plans to begin placing instruments with pilot customers “soon,” Stähler said. He added that the company will launch the system in Europe in the spring “and then later in the US.”
 
Unlike Geniom One users, who use the system to design their own arrays, RT-Analyzer users will order their chips from Febit and run them on the RT-Analyzer.
 
Stähler said that Febit will introduce whole-genome arrays for smaller organisms while continuing to develop its flagship array for miRNA research. The company’s miRNA chip is currently based on the Sanger Center’s miRBASE database, but Stähler said that Febit could add novel content next year obtained through various partnerships.
 
“We are in discussions with two companies and have development partnerships with two academic institutions,” he said. “That will be a rich resource for coding and non-coding RNA discovery and all that content will be available from us.”
 
One of these firms, Stähler said, is Prognosys Biosciences. Febit and Prognosys are currently rolling out a service that will enable customers to sequence prokaryotic organisms using Illumina’s Genome Analyzer and then order whole-genome chips from Febit (see BAN 9/25/2007).
  
Stähler said he’s optimistic for the miRNA array market. “The way that people discuss this you can feel that this is going to move pretty fast,” said Stähler. “I know tons of groups in Heidelberg that want to get started with this immediately.”
 
In the miRNA array market, Febit will compete against firms like Agilent Technologies, Illumina, Exiqon and Invitrogen, all of which sell miRNA chips, as well as Asuragen, which offers a service based on its miRNA array platform.
 
In addition to developing new content for its chips, Febit is also raising the density from 6,500 to 15,000 features per array. Some customers are already receiving arrays in the 15,000-feature format for use with the Geniom and Stähler said that the chips will generally be available with the RT-Analyzer next year. Additionally, Febit plans to introduce 30,000-feature arrays within the next two years, he said.

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