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Singapore Launches Microfluidics Foundry to Nurture Nascent Biochip Industry


By Justin Petrone

The Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology has established a new resource to help companies develop microfluidic devices, including biochips.

Launched last month, the SIMTech Microfluidics Foundry aims to provide partners with a "complete and advanced manufacturing value chain in microfluidics" with the goal of helping to develop Singapore's microfluidics industry.

This will be accomplished by "helping academia and startups to speed up their commercialization process" for microfluidics products for medical, pharmaceutical, and other companies, according to Melissa Loh, a spokesperson for Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research, or A*STAR, which oversees SIMTech's activities.

Loh told BioArray News this week that SMF has established "comprehensive capabilities" for designing, simulating, prototyping, and producing microfluidic devices."

SMF consists of a team of 28 scientists and engineers supported by eight multidisciplinary research groups in the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology, she said.

In addition, SIMTech has partnered with the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique to provide a "complete solution to specific needs when it is necessary;" Loh said. CSEM is a Neuchâtel, Switzerland-based applied research organization.

According to Loh, SMF offers partners access to microfluidic-device prototyping, and has one production line for polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS, devices, and one production line for rigid polymers such poly methyl methacrylate, or PMMA; polycarbonate, or PC, and cyclic olefin copolymer, or COC, including the "full range of measurement tools for mechanical, fluidic, optical, and electrical-characterization of microfluidics devices."

SMF's ability to use polymer materials to manufacture microfluidic devices could nurture the industry, according to Loh. Typically, biochips are fabricated using silicon wafers or glass slides, and both methods require "special processes" that "prove to be expensive for disposable applications," she said.

In comparison, not only are polymer materials "low cost," but SMF has established "micro-milling, laser-ablation and -embossing techniques" for prototyping; injection-molding techniques for production; and "low-cost bonding techniques" such as thermal, adhesive, and laser bonding, according to Loh.

Ultimately, SMF's pilot-production service enables companies to "overcome high equipment, material, and personnel overhead costs, significantly shortening the time to market," Loh claimed. It also allows them to manage volume production of microfluidic devices," she added.

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Development Deals

Part of SIMTech's interest in establishing SMF is to advance Singapore's microfluidics industry. In a statement, the institute said SMF could "make Singapore a focal point for public/private-sector microfluidic device investments, R&D, and manufacturing." It could also prove to be an "ideal avenue for diversification and growth for the Singapore precision engineering and electronics industries."

Singapore already hosts a number of biochip companies that have established manufacturing operations there, mainly taking advantage of the island nation's history as a semiconductor hub.

From 1968 to 2005, for instance, Singapore was one of the main manufacturing locations for National Semiconductor. ST Microelectronics, another semiconductor manufacturer, has had a presence on the island since 1970.

South San Francisco, Calif.-based Fluidigm established a manufacturing facility in Singapore in 2005. It has since expanded to become an R&D arm for the integrated fluidic circuit maker, as well as the headquarters for its Asian operations (BAN 4/6/2010). It is unclear whether the firm will seek to work with the newly created SMF. Fluidigm did not respond to questions in time for this publication.

Two of the leading microarray vendors, Affymetrix and Illumina, have similar operations on the island (BAN 3/30/2010).

SIMTech has already announced a number of research agreements with partners that will take advantage of SMF. Rhodia Asia Pacific, a French multinational chemical company, has in the past worked with SIMTech to develop chips that measure chemical reactions, and will continue to work with SMF to that end, SIMTech said in a statement.

Molbot, a local startup, has also inked a research agreement with the foundry. The Singaporean firm will work with SMF to develop a chip that can test food for Salmonella in around 24 hours, rather than the three days it takes using culture-based methods.

In a statement, Patrick Gilligan, managing director of Molbot, called SMF an "excellent R&D partner" that can "rapidly prototype our designs in a manufacturing-ready form."

In addition to those research agreements, SMF has signed memoranda of understanding with a number of other companies. Camtech Innovations, a UK-based microfluidics firm with operations in Singapore, has signed one such memorandum to develop high-throughput microfluidic tools.

"Lab-on-a-chip applications are extremely promising but are confined mainly in the research phase within laboratories," Kuok Meng Han, Camtech's managing director, said in a statement. He said the firm will work with SMF to "design, develop and commercialize innovative lab-on-a-chip devices."

Another shop to sign a similar agreement is Clearbridge BioMedics, a spin-off from the National University of Singapore. The firm aims to commercialize a biochip system called ClearCell that can isolate and retrieve viable circulating tumor cells from blood samples. It said it believes the biochips will eventually be the foundation for clinical cancer diagnostics, screening, and disease monitoring applications.

"By working with SIMTech, we have the opportunity to develop and, more importantly, shorten our development time for our subsequent generations of our CTChip," Johnson Chen, Clearbridge's managing director, said in a statement.

A*STAR's Loh said that companies can take advantage of SMF in several ways. Via research agreements, they "may engage the SMF throughout the product-development process from … concept to production." She said the deals with Rhodia and Molbot reflect these kinds of collaborations.

Alternatively, companies can engage SMF to manufacture specific technology-development products, which also happens to be the basis of its agreements with Camtech and Clearbridge. SMF can also provide specific prototyping services or production services for their products, Loh added.

Have topics you'd like to see covered in BioArray News? Contact the editor a1t jpetrone [at] genomeweb [.] com.

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