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Inside Intel, a Small Group Sets About Developing New Biomolecular Tools

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Andy Berlin, a Silicon Valley veteran, will tell you his research group is not going to be jumping into the DNA array business any time soon.

There are many reasons to believe that to be true. His employer is Intel and the estimated $500 million microarray market might be a bit to small for the global semiconductor giant, which has 83,000 employees and revenues of $27 billion for 2002.

However, with the high-tech market in tatters, the emerging microarray market appears enticing, and, down the road, so too is the diagnostics market.

The company has been like the elephant in the parlor in an industry where others declare their manufacturing skills are based on the techniques adapted from the semiconductor industry, and that they are following the precepts of Moore’s Law, a concept postulated by Gordon E. Moore, who is the chairman emeritus of Intel.

Intel has a proud reputation of holding information close to its chest and “Intel paranoia,” is a company mantra that some would describe, with a wink and a nod, as just a heightened state of awareness.

So, last week, when Patrick Gelsinger, the company’s chief technology officer, keynoted the Intel Developer Forum, he used the opportunity to speak to a much larger audience than the building held to detail the company’s foray into new business opportunities.

“Intel researchers are expanding Moore’s Law into new areas beyond traditional computing through advanced research and uncovering new opportunities, uses, and benefits for silicon technologies that integrate computing and communications,” Gelsinger said.

At the top level are traditional silicon-based technologies integrating computing or communications functions. At another level, it’s precision biology, Andy Berlin’s team.

Berlin came to Intel from the famed Xerox PARC laboratories two years ago. Today, he has a team that, depending on how you count part-timers, numbers from 10 to 30 people.

The company has a number of laboratories for this work and is building a team, recruiting at leading universities while working its way around the different segments of the business at the Santa Clara headquarters, and around the world.

The goal of the project is molecular analysis, said Berlin, bringing Intel’s prowess in silicon fabrication, its new skills in optical devices, and projecting them onto the world of biological molecules to create convergence.

“We would like to get to the point where one could take a piece of bodily fluid, a drop of blood, line up the molecules, march them single- file past electronic and optical devices that would identify the molecules and count them up,” he said.

This is an analysis that, Berlin said, goes beyond microarrays.

“You won’t see Intel, at least not out of my group anyway, jumping into the DNA business, or doing the sort of short-term, market-oriented activities that some of our competitors have done,” he said. “We are actually headed in a much more aggressive and longer-term direction that requires fundamental advances in the science.”

The precision biology group now goes about its business within Intel much like a shopper in a great mall of technology, Berlin said.

“We walk up to people with things like a focused ion machine and we say, you know we need a piece of silicon exactly like this to focus these molecules in a fluid flow, to get them in exactly the right way to put them right next to our detector,” he said. “In a few hours, we have that piece of silicon.

“What we are doing is systematically going through Intel’s various technology competencies and seeing if they could play a role for biology.”

Some thought does go into potential commercialization and costs, Berlin said.

“We have a very clear set of goals and objectives - it’s managed like a serious Intel project with real deadlines,” he said.

“We won’t disclose it today, but we are deciding who in the medical community we want to see this delivered to, and by when, and what it needs to do for them to be useful. It’s a very directed effort.”

Berlin doesn’t disclose the budget he has to work with but, he said, he has not spent it all.

“We are always limited by finding the right top people to do the work. That’s been the fundamental limiting factor,” he said.

To find the perfect pieces, Berlin is shopping beyond the Intel mall. He said the company has made one biotechnology investment and is on the lookout for more.

“Where someone has a piece of technology that will fit into the puzzle, we will go get it,” he said.

He said that three research papers will “leave the building” within the next week to mark a long process of investigation.

“We are talking about this to set everyone’s expectations properly,” he said. “This is advanced research, and a real long-term add-on of technology and silicon coming into play in medicine in a more ubstantial way than has been possible before by driving Moore’s Law into ever finer transistor sizes and as a consequence of Intel’s entry into communications, and a fair amount of optical activity as well. Those devices are getting integrated, and that opens up interesting content analysis possibilities as well.”

The path over the next five years, Berlin said, is trying to decide at what point to actually make the jump into the market and start making some money from these things.

“A lot depends on how the industry evolves,” he said. “If we can build an instrument that can tell you that you have cancer three years before you would know otherwise, we would feel quite happy and quite successful; then we could take a step backwards and figure out how to make it manufacturable.”

— MOK

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