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Optical-Imaging Vendor Microcosm Enters ‘Very Competitive’ Microarray Slide Market

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Microcosm, a privately held engineering company that has traditionally played in the optical-instruments and imaging-systems markets, this week entered the molecular biology market by launching its BioBright microarray substrates.
 
While the “very competitive” slide space includes products from vendors like Corning, Schott-Nexterion, Whatman, and Gentel Biosciences, Microcosm believes it has a shot at capturing market share due to the performance of its technology, according to Microcosm CEO Wayne Moore.
 
Moore told BioArray News last month that the firm’s metal-coated slides provide enhanced fluorescence and greater signal-to-noise ratio that could distinguish it from some of the entrenched players in the market.
 
Moore said that Microcosm deposits a dielectric layer atop a metal layer on a 1 x 3-inch slide. The two layers have properties that work together to enhance the signal level of fluorescent markers, he said.
 
“What we have is a technology that greatly increases the amount of light absorbed by fluorescent molecules bound to the surface of a microarray substrate,” he said. “The product increases the amount of fluorescence at the probe wavelength — that is, the desired signal wavelength — by a factor of 20 or more. At the same time it has a minimal effect on background fluorescence.”
 
Moore said that, if a researcher’s assay is clean, he will likely see the signal-to-background ratio improve in the range of “15- to 50-fold greater than any other substrate you can buy.” He added that “all common protocols work on this product just like a conventional substrate, and it can be read by most popular microarray reading instruments with no special handling or adaptation of any kind.”
 
Microcosm, based in Columbia, Md., this month launched the product, a two-color microarray substrate that works at two wavelengths: 635 nanometers and 532 nanometers. Moore said that the slides will be “competitively priced,” but declined to provide further detail on pricing.
 
Additionally, he said the 15-year-old company expects to work with a “major microarray substrate supplier” that will fulfill customer orders on behalf of Microcosm, while Microcosm will handle manufacturing and technical support. Moore did not name the supplier, although he said it wasn’t Corning.
 
Like many in the array tools market, Microcosm expects its major initial clients to be researchers working with protein arrays. The absence of a comprehensive protein-array provider has encouraged other companies that sell tools for home-built arrays, notably firms selling arrayers, like Arrayjet and Aushon Biosystems (see BAN 5/13/2008, BAN 7/17/2007).
 

“We have seen many smaller players withdraw from this maturing market due to increasing price pressure.”

“At the moment we prefer the protein array market,” said Moore. “But the truth of the matter is that the same exact product works as well in DNA applications as in the protein applications. For the time being I think the initial thrust is in protein array applications, and there are a vast number of such applications.” Jena, Germany-based Schott and Madison, Wis.-based Gentel both sell nitrocellulose-coated slides for use in protein-array applications.
 
While Microcosm’s technology may be positioned to compete against tools made by Gentel, Schott, and others, Moore said the company has recognized the challenges of facing off against those firms and has settled on a different route to market. Specifically, rather than trying to directly reach the research market, the company will rely on its unnamed larger slide supplier as a “principal channel” to the market, while it will look to provide companies that sell arrays as a substrate supplier.
 
“While there may be a few researchers who request samples or seek to buy the product, we expect that we will be approaching individual corporations that have products on the market and who can see a strong positive impact on their bottom line by using our substrate with their existing, proven product lines,” he said.
 
“If you stop to think about it, with this product one needs a factor of five to 10 lower concentration of labeled material, and less capture material fixed to the array surface,” Moore said. “The expensive part of a microarray is not its substrate; it’s the antibodies or other biological materials that are used in making the biological reactions. This can be very expensive stuff.”
 
Despite these claimed advantages, Moore acknowledged that Microcosm will have to fight to gain market share from its competitors. Another challenge is that some researchers have had bad experiences with fluorescence-enhancing surfaces.
 
“The market is difficult in my experience,” he said. “This is partly due to the fact that other companies in the past have introduced fluorescence-enhancing products and systems.”
 
‘Maturing Market’
 
According to Alistair Rees, microarray product manager at Schott-Nexterion, the opportunities for new players to penetrate the array slide market at this time are limited.
 
“The coated microarray slide market is very competitive and we have seen many smaller players withdraw from this maturing market due to increasing price pressure,” he told BioArray News this week. He did not name them.
 
He also said that there “is a lot of resistance to change slide supplier among the self-printing microarray community.” According to Rees, one reason for this is the “significant effort it takes to optimize the slide-printing process.”
 
Another barrier to success is that companies in the market cannot rely solely on “catalogue sales channels” to reach customers, Rees said. He said that all sales of coated slides are “technical sales” that force companies to put resources into setting up effective sales and distribution organizations.
 
“Schott has expended a lot of effort setting up a dedicated sales and distribution system that consists of direct sales operations in the major self-printed microarray slide markets, such as the US, Europe, and Japan, and dedicated third-party life science distributors in other countries,” Rees said.
 
In terms of market growth, Rees said that newer application areas, such as protein arrays or comparative genomic hybridization, have reinvigorated the market at a time when sales to the gene-expression market have continued to plateau.
 
“The growth of the ‘traditional’ gene expression slide market is slowing down, but [it is] compensated by increases in microRNA and arrayCGH applications,” said Rees. “Protein, cell lysate and glycoprotein microarrays, particularly those with direct clinical diagnostic applications, are growing very rapidly.”

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