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Fluidigm Opens Office in China, Strikes Services Pact with Ambry Genetics

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This story was originally posted on April 20.

Fluidigm made two moves in recent weeks that put its integrated fluidic circuit biochips in direct competition with microarrays sold by vendors like Affymetrix, Agilent Technologies, Illumina, and Roche NimbleGen.

First, the South San Francisco, Calif.-based firm announced the establishment of a subsidiary in Shanghai, allowing it to directly serve customers from the same city in China where competitors like Affy and Illumina have their offices.

Second, Fluidigm inked a deal with Ambry Genetics, allowing Ambry to offer Fluidigm-based genomic research services for gene expression, SNP genotyping, and target enrichment. Ambry has purchased Fluidigm's BioMark HD and Access Array systems as part of the agreement.

Fluidigm spokesperson Howard High told BioArray News that the company expects to benefit from both developments, hopeful that China will be a "growing, important market" for the company, and noting that partnerships with CLIA-compliant service labs like Ambry represent a "growing opportunity" for Fluidigm as biotechs increasingly outsource their research projects.

'A Direct Presence'

Founded in 1999, Fluidigm competes in almost every market that array makers do. Its BioMark HD and EP1 systems support gene expression, SNP genotyping, and copy number variation studies using digital PCR, while its Access Array system supports target enrichment and sample barcoding for next-generation sequencing.

Although smaller than its competitors — Fluidigm employs about 240 people, Affy employs about 1,000, and Illumina has 1,700 employees — the company is targeting array customers, especially those doing downstream research. As it said in its most recent 10-K filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, "for validation studies, which typically require the analysis of thousands or tens of thousands of samples, the high per sample cost of microarrays and bead arrays often make them uneconomical."

Fluidigm already has resources in Asia. Like Affy and Illumina, the company maintains a corporate office and manufacturing facility in Singapore (BAN 4/6/2010). It also has offices in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, and nine distributors covering eight different territories.

Still, the Asian market represents a small portion of the company's overall sales. According to its 10-K, Fluidigm's revenues in Asia-Pacific were about $7.6 million in 2011, less than a fifth of its total 2011 revenues of $40.5 million.

In the case of China, High said that reaching customers via distributors has been "difficult." The company said in a statement that it has placed about 20 systems in the country to date.

In China, "much of the business begins with a professional or personal relationship," High said. "In order to schedule a meeting with an important scientist or a senior person at a business, you typically get a referral from a friend who knows that person," he said.

When it relied solely on distributors, Fluidigm would have to work "extra hard" to gain such introductions that would allow it to meet with a potential client, said High. "The distributor would add value in understand the logistics of getting equipment into the country and payment out of the country, but when selling higher priced capital equipment it is often important to building relationships at the highest level," he said.

Still, the company will continue to work with partners to serve the market. Joanna Jiang, the new general manager of Fluidigm China, said in a statement that while Fluidigm now has a "direct presence in China, we are a small company and will continue to work with our distribution partners to ensure that we can meet the needs of our customers throughout China's vast geography."

Fluidigm sees potential in a number of specific application areas for customers in China. CEO Gajus Worthington said in a statement that the country is "aggressively pursuing research in therapeutic stem cells and single-cell genomics" and that the company's chips provide "advanced single-cell and stem-cell solutions" to the Chinese life science research community.

"Remember that China is one of the only, if not the only, major economies in the world that can invest from a cash position, rather than from debt," said High. "The government uses a five-year plan and in that plan they have designated a significant amount to expand its capabilities in healthcare, from research to hospitals," he said.

Fluidigm has already experienced some success in providing tools for stem cell research in neighboring Japan. A number of researchers, including Toshio Suda of Keio University’s Graduate School of Medicine and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University's Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences, have used its BioMark system for stem cell research (BAN 8/30/2009)

'A CLIA Setting'

While Fluidigm increased its presence abroad, it also expanded its footprint in its home market.

Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Ambry Genetics last week began offering research services on Fluidigm's platforms. In a statement, Fluidigm noted that "from a regulatory standpoint, Ambry can offer its services within a CLIA setting," enabling it to reach customers that would like to have their data generated in a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-compliant facility.

Ardy Arianpour, vice president of business development at Ambry, told BioArray News that Fluidigm has seen a "tremendous increase in demand" from pharmaceutical companies, adding that most pharma requests have been for SNP genotyping, digital PCR, and gene expression profiling.

Ambry also offers SNP genotyping on Biotage's Pyromark MD Pyrosequencer and Illumina's BeadXpress systems. The company is a certified service provider for both Agilent and Roche NimbleGen. It offers a number of applications on both platforms, including array comparative genomic hybridization and gene, microRNA and methylation profiling.

Additionally, it offers a number of internally designed, focused arrays: the StemArray, for stem cell research; the CancerArray, targeting cancer genes; and the recently launched Cho Cell Expression Array, targeted to pharmaceutical companies that produce recombinant proteins in Chinese hamster ovary, or CHO, cells (BAN 1/31/2012).

In regards to targeted enrichment, Ambry offers Agilent and Roche NimbleGen arrays and solution kits, as well as offerings from RainDance Technologies, Life Technologies' Ion Torrent, and Illumina.

According to Arianpour, Ambry decided to introduce services on Fluidigm's BioMark and Access Array systems because of the technology's "high-throughput capabilities" and "very low cost" compared to arrays. He did not elaborate on the cost comparison. He also mentioned low sample input requirements for Fluidigm's chips as another benefit.

"It used to be difficult to provide accurate and fast, high-throughput data for large-scale projects and with Fluidigm now we have an option that will let you go as low as 500 nanograms of material per sample for your project of interest," said Arianpour. This opens up opportunities for Fluidigm, particularly among pharmaceutical companies that had sample criteria below 1 microgram and had no options for running their projects, he said.

Looking ahead, Arianpour said that the two firms will in coming weeks launch "some new services" together and that Fluidigm and Ambry will co-market Ambry's services to Fluidigm customers interested in outsourcing their research projects.

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