PlexPress, a spinout of Finland's VTT Technical Research Center that specializes in multiplex gene-expression analysis, announced this week that it has secured $2.75 million in an initial venture capital seed funding round to help it launch its technology platform by the third quarter.
PlexPress' core technology, transcription analysis with affinity capture, or TRAC, was developed by researchers at VTT to provide high-content gene-expression analysis of between two and 150 genes in up to several thousand samples.
The company, which maintains offices in Helsinki and Los Altos, Calif., said applications for the platform include compound screening, cellular signaling, stem cell and cancer research, and toxicology.
The technology will likely compete with other mid-multiplex expression platforms sold by companies like High-Throughput Genomics and Panomics, which was acquired by Affymetrix last year.
According to PlexPress, the seed financing round was led by Finnish investors Conor Technology Fund I, based in Espoo; Veraventure, of Kuopio; the Helsinki University Fund; and VTT.
CEO Robert Dunkle told BioArray News last week that the round should enable PlexPress to fund operations until the platform debuts in the fall. Since its founding, PlexPress has embarked on around 30 research projects, he said, but now requires outside funding to support a global business.
"Prior to securing this financing, we had no lab from which to run expression projects or manufacture our products," Dunkle said. "We had borrowed facilities in academic labs, and that was OK to get started, but we obviously needed to expand into our own facilities. This financing gives us a basis to get set up, operate as a company, and commercialize our first products."
Dunkle said that PlexPress will not require large capital infusions to develop and launch TRAC. At least 11 papers have been published based on the platform since 2005, and the technology is "well vetted," he said. Instead, PlexPress is concerned with providing the reagents to support TRAC kits for expresion analysis.
"We are developing the final commercialization package and accompanying standards," said Dunkle. "We plan to release our products in early fall."
According to PlexPress, TRAC relies on a set of amplifiable detection probes of distinct sizes, and biotinylated oligo capture probes are hybridized in solution. The resulting sandwich hybrids are collected on magnetic streptavidin-coated microparticles and washed.
The hybridized probes are then eluted, optionally amplified by a PCR using a universal primer pair, and detected with laser-induced fluorescence and capillary electrophoresis. TRAC has been adapted to work in a 96-well format, and PlexPress said the technology can complement research projects that initially use whole-genome expression arrrays sold by companies like Affymetrix and Illumina.
When PlexPress rolls out its initial offerings, customers will be able to choose between selecting genes for analysis in PlexPress' services lab or ordering custom TRACPACK kits directly from the company.
"Customers will first do their gene array work using, say, Affymetrix, and then decide on a narrower list of genes that are implicated in a particular biological process," Dunkle said. "They will work with us to develop an assay and either we will send them the panel and the reagents or we will run that projet in our services lab. When we start a focused study with a customer, we are typically looking at the 20 to 60 genes they have discovered and running them in a variety of gene-expression experiments."
Data generated using the firm's kits are analyzed using its TRAC Parser software, which provides quality-control checks on the experimental data, normalizes the results within a sample and across samples, generates summary tables of experimental results, and delivers gene-expression data in a format that can easily be imported to a database, spreadsheet, or other data-analysis applications, the company said.
PlexPress also aims to introduce catalog panels at a later date, but Dunkle said the company has not yet decided on what content it will make available first. "We will have a cafeteria-style list that customers can select from, and we will send them a panel that includes those genes," he said. PlexPress currently envisions releasing around half a dozen catalog panels sometime next year.
In general, the company is targeting application areas as opposed to particular market segments like academia or pharma, but Dunkle said that PlexPress has "narrowed down its target audience to a limited set of applications in academia and pharma," such as cancer and stem cells, to "understand better its value proposition for these particular applications." The company is also looking at toxicology screening, he noted, which is more pharma related.
"This is where we are spending time and attention initially," he said.
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Between the Bay Area and the Baltic Sea
PlexPress is currently incorporated in Helsinki and Los Altos, located in Silicon Valley. According to Dunkle, PlexPress' Finnish office will continue to serve as the R&D and manufacturing hub for the firm, while Los Altos will be its administrative center and home to its sales and marketing efforts.
"We'll continue doing R&D and manufacturing in Finland because of our staff's expertise and the favorable economic climate," Dunkle said. "The bulk of our customers, though, will be in the US, and Los Altos will be the sales and marketing headquarters for the corporation."
PlexPress will also develop a services lab in Los Altos to expedite North American expression projects, he said.
Jari Mieskonen, managing partner at lead investor Conor, told BioArray News this week that Conor decided to invest in PlexPress because VTT had "put in the effort to develop the technology for the past eight to 10 years," and because the "investment needed to apply the technology is relatively low."
According to Mieskonen, having a developed platform is a "benefit," considering the current market situation. "Competing solutions require heavy early investments, so if we can show the usefullness of this technology, the market will be on our side," he said. "We have a chance to make a good market entrance, and we have a handful of very credible pilot users at the moment" — the Finnish National Public Health Institute is one — "that are showing the benefits of this technology."
As part of Conor's investment, Mieskonen has joined PlexPress' board of directors. He said that Conor is in principle committed to two more rounds of investment in PlexPress, while it is also "actively seeking" other sources of funding for the company.
For the A and B rounds, which typically follow seed investments, "we will stay and coinvest with new potential investors," he said. Dunkle declined to discuss when PlexPress might seek new funding.
'The Demand is There'
According to PlexPress, the market for its technology exists betwen the limitations of high-density arrays and lower-plex qPCR assays. It's a similar market niche being targeted by Panomics, now part of Affy, and HTG, and both companies see the market as poised for growth as more researchers move their array-based discovery projects into more in-depth characterization of fewer numbers of genes.
Affy spent $73 million to acquire Fremont, Calif.-based Panomics last December to fill this void in its portfolio as more of its pharma clients move projects downstream. Founded in 2000, Panomics offers products for in situ RNA, RNA, DNA, protein, and cell analysis. Its flagship platform, QuantiGene, is based on branched DNA technology and delivers quantitative gene-expression analysis (see BAN 2/24/2009).
During Affy's first-quarter earnings call last month, President and CEO Kevin King told investors that Panomics plays in "high-growth markets [that] are less constrained by research funding and are more likely to generate recurring revenue streams." He said that Panomics' platform has been "received well by our customers for biomarker analysis, drug compound screening, in situ gene expression, RNAi monitoring, and DNA copy-number applications."
HTG’s flagship platform, meantime, is its ArrayPlate 96-16, which uses the firm’s quantitative Nucleic Protection Assay, or qNPA, to measure gene expression. The core attribute of qNPA is its use of a lysis buffer to release the RNA from the sample, thereby removing from the protocol the RNA extraction, amplification, and labeling steps (see BAN 10/21/2008).
According to HTG, qNPA can be used on most samples, including cultured cell lines, fresh tissue, and formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded archival material to survey anywhere between 200 and 4,000 genes that they can select from the firm's catalog.
HTG CEO TJ Johnson told BioArray News this week that the "mid-plex market is a growing segment, as many researchers are trying to validate smaller signature sets that have resulted from larger whole-genome associaton studies." He said HTG believes the market will grow by 10 to 20 percent over next five years.
According to Johnson, the demand for tools sold by firms like Panomics, HTG, and PlexPress is being driven by the "need to move possible gene signatures through validation and to the clinic in quick time frames and with precise data." Of its existing and potential customers, pharma researchers are also looking at mid-plex assays for secondary screening and profiling, he said. Ultimately, customers require "more data earlier in the process to better understand complex diseases."
PlexPress' Dunkle said that it is "positive that firms like Affy are taking steps to fill these holes in their menu because it shows that the demand is there." He said that PlexPress will seek to differentiate itself by working closely with its customers.
"We are delivering information to customers so that they can meet project objectives," Dunkle said. "We look at experimental designs, which genes to profile, the best way to run assay[s], and the best way to analyze results downstream. Other firms can offer the assays and the specs, but we aim to actually solve the problem."