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Silicon Chip Blood Analysis Inventor, I-Stat Founder Gets Funds to Commercialize Biochip

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Is a competitive microarray technology brewing up north?

At least one funder thinks so, and is opening its wallet.

In mid-January, Genesys Capital Partners of Toronto dipped into the New Generation Biotech Equity Fund to deliver a second round of funding to microarray startup Epocal of Ottawa.

A month into the new year, with North American economies, at best, uninspired, microarray technology offers a glimmer of venture capital light. Array-based companies announcing VC investment closes so far in 2003 include: Amphora Discovery of Research Triangle Park, NC ($23 million); GenoSpectra of Fremont, Calif. ($8 million); and Nano-sphere of Northbrook, Ill. ($5 million in add-on).

For Epocal, the CA $3.1 million capital injection comes from a pool of investment capital created by the United Steelworkers of America, National Local 1976 of Ontario — a labor organization of some 10,000 workers from the airline, rail, trucking, grain, and communications industries — and adds to the CA $3.2 million funding of November 2001.

This investment of hard-earned retirement monies is a bet largely made on the track record of Epocal founder Imants Lauks, who invented the silicon-chip blood analyzer in 1984 and founded i-Stat, an East Windsor, NJ, company that manufactures point-of-care blood analysis products. The technology has since evolved into a pocket-sized analyzer that performs common blood tests at the point of patient care. The company has a market capitalization of $80 million and estimated sales of $54 million for 2002.

Lauks left i-Stat in 1999, bound to a two-year non-compete clause in his employment agreement. This is his first venture since that expired.

In announcing the funding, Genesys said Epocal may be able to commercially launch a product within the next year.

Epocal is creating a biochip that combines microfluidics and microarray technology. Just as the i-Stat device was orders of magnitude less expensive than the tests it replaced, this system could also be disruptively priced. Certainly, price is a major hurdle for microarray-based analytics to enter the point-of-care diagnostics market.

Lauks did not return several calls for comment. The company, said Kelly Holman, managing director for Genesys and a Epocal board member, has applied for patents, and is mindful of the litigious atmosphere in the field.

In 2001, Lauks told the Ottawa Business Journal: “Our plan is to be a global player in biotechnology. I see no reason why Epocal couldn’t be a whole lot bigger.”

— MOK

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