NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Sphere Fluidics will use the proceeds of a new round of funding to support the development of a "industrial" version of its Cyto-Mine single-cell analysis platform that it hopes to place in the R&D laboratories of its growing roster of pharmaceutical industry clients.
The privately held Cambridge, UK-based company announced late last month that it had secured £1.4 million ($2.4 million) in the first tranche of a new investment round, with a second tranche expected to close in September. Sphere Fluidics also said that it has more potential funding in the pipeline. It did not name its investors.
CEO Frank Craig told BioArray News this week that much of the new funding will go to the development of new version of Cyto-Mine. Sphere Fluidics already has made a "research" version of the system available to its clients – which include half of the world's top ten pharmas, according to Craig – but the company is looking to simplify the system's ease of use and analysis tools so they can be used by lab technicians.
"We have a research system, but if you are going to place them in a global pharma company, they have to be production systems, and we want to move this into the industrial, developed market," said Craig.
In doing so, Sphere Fluidics is seeking to take advantage of two market trends: an increasing interest in single-cell analysis and competition among pharmaceutical companies' R&D departments. These trends have not gone unnoticed by firms like South San Francisco, Calif.-based Fluidigm, which continues to see its revenues rise on demand for its C1 Single-Cell Sample-Prep System, or Manchester, UK-based Retrogenix, which offers drug target screening services on an internally developed cell microarray platform.
"I think single-cell analysis is one of the main advances to come along in science in the past few years," said Craig. "Current technologies are not integrated, slow, and don't process a lot of cells, so if a company comes in with a technology that has speed and throughput, it makes sense to invest in that," he said.
"In pharma R&D there has been a lot of competition," Craig continued. "One strategy has been to access technology from academia and smaller firms to leapfrog the competition," he said, "so I think there's a bit of that going on."
Sphere Fluidics has benefited from both of those trends, and has generated enough income to add personnel and fund technology development. Complemented with the proceeds from its ongoing financing, the company aims to get a pharma R&D-ready version of its system on the market later this year, ahead of establishing a US sales office to serve its North American clients, most likely in the Boston area, sometime in 2015. Indeed, Sphere Fluidics announced this week that it had trademarked the Cyto-Mine name in Europe and had plans to seek similar protection in the US and other regions.
Sphere Fluidics already offers a number of products based on its core picodroplet technology, where tens of millions of miniaturized samples are made available in picodroplets arrayed on its polydimethylsiloxane-based PicoGen biochips.
These other products include Pico-Break, a chemical that separates picodroplet emulsions into visible aqueous and oil layers for enhanced single cell and molecule recovery; Pico-Glide, for coating surfaces to minimize non-specific binding interactions and improve picodroplet stability and performance; and Pico-Surf, a range of surfactants especially optimized for applications in cell biology, mass spectrometry, and molecular biology. All four product lines are distributed by Dolomite.
The company's current thrust, though, is toward marketing an automated Cyto-Mine instrument capable of processing those biochips. Using additional sorting or pooling techniques, the capacity of its Pico-Gen biochips can be extended to enable the screening of around one billion individual cells, according to the firm, an attribute that may entice some clients to adopt the system.
Much of that throughput is defined by the sizes of the cells themselves. "If we are looking at B cells, we can process about ten million cells per day," said Craig. "With bacteria, we can go up to 50 million per day, because the dropper volume can be lowered," he said. "We also have the ability to create two streams of picodrops with different cell types, fuse them using electrical techniques, screen them beside each other, and perhaps identify new kinds of interactions, which is something that no one else can do."
Craig noted that the firm's picodroplets are compatible with PCR machines, next-generation sequencing instruments, and optical analyzers, which is why the firm sees Fluidigm's single-cell analysis applications as complementary rather than competitive.
"We can process tens of millions of single cells," said Craig. "Once those are identified, the user is welcome to use next-gen sequencing platforms or Fluidigm platforms," he said.
While biopharmaceutical discovery is the main application for the Cyto-Mine platform, the company envisions its technology being applied for other purposes, such as single-cell diagnostics and prognostics. For example, investigators could use Cyto-Mine to measure the response of single cells to antibiotics, Craig said, allowing clinicians to use the system to gauge antibiotic resistance.
Sphere Fluidics' existing customers have taken note of the technology's various potential applications, and the company has been collaborating with its clients, some of whom may fund that application development and help push the platform into new areas, Craig said.
"We are in talks with major international partners in the US and China, and we imagine the next round of funding might be from international sources," he said. "That's fantastic because it shows interest from the US market and Asian market and will hopefully make us more successful."