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French Cell Chip Maker Cytoo Raises $4.7M, Opens US Shop

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By Justin Petrone

Looking to tap into demand for high-throughput, cell-based assays from North American customers, French startup Cytoo recently raised $4.7 million to help it establish a US subsidiary near Boston.

Founded last year in Grenoble, Cytoo currently sells CytooChips, which each comprises a 2 cm x 2 cm glass surface containing 144 micropattern arrays that provide 20,000 micropatterns per chip.

CytooPlates, glass-bottom microplates in 96- or 384-well format, where each well holds an array of over 1,000 identical micropatterns, are expected to become available in April 2010. The chips and plates are available in a wide range of geometries and are used to normalize cell morphology and behavior and control cell organization for more reliable analysis, according to Cytoo.

According to President and co-CEO François Chatelain, Cytoo is ready to expand into the North American market to grow sales, attract customers, streamline logistics, and position the company for further rounds of financing.

Chatelain told BioArray News this week that there are several reasons for Cytoo's decision to set up shop in the US just 18 months after the company was founded. The first reason is the size of the US market. Chatelain said that market studies show that US customers could represent about 50 percent of the industrial market for cell-based assays and microtiter plates, in particular.

In a statement, the firm said that the US market for high-content screening assays is the "most mature" and was worth roughly $850 million in 2007.

In North America, though, Cytoo is also interested in working with talented scientists. "The US is where you find key opinion leaders," said Chatelain. "In this particular market, Europe is the follower, and France is even more of a follower," he said. Another reason for US entry is to make it easier to serve customers.

"It is much easier for US customers to order through a US company," said Chatelain. "Ordering to Grenoble created a lot of issues" for customers, he said, as some government-backed researchers had to justify the need to buy from a French firm and prove that there is no equivalent technology in the US.

Another reason for planting a stake in the US is the likelihood of additional investment. Cytoo will go through one more round of financing, he said. "This one we expect will be of larger value and that US investors will join the round," said Chatelain.

In addition to the $4.7 million the firm raised recently, Cytoo netted $1.5 million in seed funding last year. Investors include Auriga Partners, CEA Valorisation, Rhône-Alpes-Creation, and Expansinvest as well as private investors.

To lead its US operations, which will be called Cytoo Inc., Cytoo hired Bill Sharp as CEO. Sharp previously was president and CEO of Aruna Biomedical, a privately held stem cell technologies company, was chief commercial officer at BioProcessors, and served as vice president of business development at Cellomics.

Based in Framingham, Mass., the US office will focus on sales and marketing efforts, while Cytoo's operations will continue at its headquarters in Grenoble. "Not only do we want a subsidiary in the United States, we want our marketing to be directed from the US, because to address the worldwide market, US marketing is better, and is more universal or generic than French marketing," Chatelain said.

Currently, Cytoo employs 15 people in Grenoble and Framingham, and Chatelain noted that the firm's headcount has doubled since it began selling its CytooChips in April.

'Raising Awareness'

Cytoo's chips are competing in a market with a variety of different technology platforms, each of which offers users a different way of looking at cells. For instance, San Diego-based Biolog sells Phenotype Microarrays for high-throughput cell screening. Researchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland have also developed a miniaturized next-generation approach to microarray-based cell screening (see BAN 9/16/2008).

Chatelain said that Cytoo's platform differs from other approaches in that the cells on its arrays are normalized, allowing users to scan hundreds of cells without worrying about the differences between them.

"Our main issue is raising awareness and getting people to move to buying the product and starting to use it. We don't have direct competitors," said Chatelain. "Nobody is offering a technology that can normalize cells, and the main problem in high-content screening is cell-to-cell viability," he said. "We are the only technology that can normalize cells so that cells look the same, all organized the same way."

Cytoo's CytooChips use micropatterns to control the shape of the cell on the surface, forcing the cells to behave the same way, Chatelain said. "Cells have limited points where they can anchor to the surface," he said. "We can normalize and control the inner structure of the cells. Everything is registered by micropattern and the cells behave the same way," he added.

Cytoo's chips have been on the market since April, and the original product was designed with individual researchers in mind. Chatelain said the firm has seen some demand from academic labs. But beyond academic research in cell biology, Cytoo wants its platform to be adopted by high-content screening groups within the R&D divisions of pharmaceutical companies. "We believe those two fields, those two segments talk to each other all the time and cross fertilize," he said.

To meet the needs of pharma customers, Cytoo is beginning beta tests on its microtiter plate format, which will make Cytoo chips available in 96 and 384 wells. He said the new products should become available in April 2010.

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