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Lars Thomsen on Leveraging Networks to Commercialize a Biochip

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At A Glance

  • Lars Thomsen, CEO, Thomsen Bioscience, Norresundby, North Jutland, Denmark.
  • MSc — 1991, electrophysiology, Copenhagen University.
  • PhD — 1995, neurophysiology, Copenhagen University.
  • Postdoc — Internal Disease Research Program, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Lars Thomsen, a 39-year-old Danish PhD, has created a biochip that has applications in biosensing, and is designed to wirelessly link into telecom data networks.

In getting his idea to the point of commercialization, with a launch date set for August, Thomsen has done more than develop a product from an idea. He has done it on the cheap, without venture-capital backing. Instead, he has used his networking skills to capture military development contracts and has created a collaboration of 14 companies that will help finance and build the components that his firm will then assemble. And, his newest investor will sell the product.

BioArray News recently spoke with Thomsen to learn about his venture.

How does your biochip work?

It does sampling from air: We use technology to concentrate the sample, then do single-cell detection.

What we have achieved is the total integration of all components — that’s sampling from air, sample preparation, DNA amplification, and DNA detection. It’s a handheld device. It will fit in a phone. There is a plastic disposable part but the main parts can be reused, whereas the chips have to be replaced from time to time and, of course, there is some consumption in it that has to be replenished. We are working on improving the supplies so that it can last a longer time. If it can run a week, that’s pretty good.

I can just tell you that it’s not based on fluorescence. It will see one cell. There is a concentration step to go from a fairly large sample to do to a small sample. But that all depends on the setting you are in. You can take a huge sample, or take small samples. The main point is that it has the sensitivity of one cell.

How did you get the idea to do this?

I was interested in making a chip for doing patch clamping, so you can move a cell onto a small hole and make a tiny current recording from that cell. One way for doing that is by using a lipid bilayer. This is a difficult technique, so I tried to contact people who had expertise in that. I got in contact with the Swedish Defense Research Institute; they had a group working with lipid bilayers. They wanted to form a sensor against biological warfare agents. This was back in 2000. When I started my own company, back in 2001, I approached this group and said I can a make detector for biological warfare and I can use the technology for clinical diagnostics. They thought that was a good idea so I founded the company. That was the first of September, and then came the Sept. 11 catastrophe in New York. In the aftermath of that you had the anthrax letters. Then, of course, it all became very real. The Swedish Defense Institute contacted the Danish Research Institute and told them: You have a company in Denmark doing these kinds of things: Don’t you think it would be worthwhile to do a contract with them? And so I got a joint military contract between the Swedish and Danish defense ministries.

What kind of settings do you imagine this being used in?

We are making it low cost, so that you can spread it out everywhere, and you can set it up on all buildings. We have models where you can calculate where and how you can put it up so you can get best coverage. The detector is going to be so cheap that price is not going to be an issue. The communication from the device, done by a Danish company, will go into a database that is already in use by the US Army and being sold to everybody in NATO. This software is for the registration of data from NBC detectors — nuclear, biological, and chemical agents. Ours is a B detector.

The main point is the integration of all the technology, hooked up with a control circuit and with communication. If you want an unmanned device that you can mount in a place where you are not going to watch it, then you need a communications part, so we have made a close integration of these technologies. Our aim is really making a low-cost device. I don’t want to reveal price information but it’s going to be on the scale of mobile phones.

How are you funded?

We have private funds from a Danish mobile phone development company, RTX Telecom, and we just got another investor, who has invested enough money for us to make it a product.

What is unique about this is our set-up. We have pulled together a consortium of companies who are specialists in providing low-cost devices. Several companies are making [the parts] and we have several choices for the producer of the chip. If you want to make a chip with a successful design, it is very important that you get a high yield from your manufacturing process. We have made it very simple so that everybody is capable of making it. But the most important thing is: The chips and interfaces and everything will be connected here. That’s what RTX Telecom is good at as a partner. They are really good at setting things like this up and putting things like this on the market in product shape. We are working in a small factory that is a mobile phone R&D powerhouse with a lot of software engineers.

This area here is a mobile phone development area. I think there was EC funding years ago, before the mobile phone technology became such a hit, which made it a hot spot for mobile phone development. All the mobile phone companies are located here — Siemans, Ericsson, Nokia. There is a huge pool of engineers who are capable of making the miniaturization of electronic software. It’s a nice place to sit for a guy like me who wants to make a handheld device.

Who owns the intellectual property?

That’s owned by Thomsen Bioscience. We have submitted four patent applications — one in the US, one in England, and two in Denmark.

Patents are a big issue in this technology.

It is really a jungle: You will be ruined if you take a patent lawyer from scratch and try to make him an expert. The prior art in this area is so big; you really have to read all of them and you have to know what patents are critical. What you need are really good consultants with their fingers on the pulse of really good technology. You can do with a lesser amount to the patent attorneys if you do the documents well. We have some really skilled researchers who have been doing this for years. They are kind of intermediate to the attorneys. We have a way for preparing the documents so they just click into the way that the patent lawyer works so he doesn’t have to do such great work on it.

What is your business plan?

I came out of a company that raised $10 million. I thought that was completely wrong. They wanted to do everything themselves. Sitting here now, two years later, looking at them, they have used all their money and they haven’t made their product yet. I said to myself, this is not going to work. Everybody in biotech is just burning money like hell and nobody is making any products. That’s nice if you are burning the venture capitalists’ money, but if it’s your own money, it’s not that much fun. I talked to venture capitalists and I thought very rapidly I’m not going to own the company. So, I started really small and focused on the biochip and the functionality. If you put some thought into a chip before you make it, you are actually going to save a lot of money. It’s wrong to hire software and hardware engineers for making the controls for the chip before you actually have something that really works.

I am still the major shareholder in the company, although that has changed a little bit with new investors coming in. But, I haven’t used a lot of money. Our economy is healthy and we have money enough to bring the product to the market. We have a network of committed partners; we are going to share the profit.

The company is paying me; I’m getting a salary, so that’s okay. It’s nice to see your shares grow, but that doesn’t matter right now, what is most important is that we haven’t used a lot of money, and we are getting far.

We would like to raise more cash, but the setup we have is utilizing the best of the companies that we have made partnerships with, and it’s really very cost effective. Of course, we have picked them by analyzing what our technology needs are, thinking this company has this expertise, they can make it much cheaper. We told them, you have the products and the setup, why not shape that around so that you can employ it in our product? We have had meetings with them and demonstrated what we have and we convinced them.

Now, I want to make results and convince the partners day by day that we won’t disappoint them. So far, no partner who has come into this project has said they want out. These companies are not just in there as collaborators, they are giving financial commitment to the process.

I’m a researcher and a biologist, and I just want to make this product. I don’t think about anything else. All my collaborators know that, they respect that. This process has been hard.

You know, it’s probably hard to be in the military, but it’s hard too to have to deliver to the military. You have to deliver a lot, and we have.

How much have you spent so far?

I can tell you that and you are going to laugh. I’ve spent €700,000.

That’s nothing. That’s why people like me.

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