NEW YORK – Having recently closed an $18 million Series B funding round that included an investment from Bruker, spatial proteomics firm Ionpath is looking to expand its sales force and invest in artificial intelligence tools for analyzing data generated on its platform.
The Menlo Park, California-based firm has focused much of the last year on its research services business, said Ionpath CEO Sander Gubbens, noting that this decision was driven in large part by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. He said that the company hopes in 2021 to add sales personnel to increase placements of its MIBIscope tissue imaging platform.
Launched in 2014 as a spinout from Stanford University, Ionpath uses metal-conjugated antibodies combined with mass spectrometry to enable highly multiplexed protein measurements with subcellular resolution.
The company's technology is similar to Fluidigm's imaging mass cytometry platform, Hyperion, which also uses metal-conjugated antibodies and mass spec to collect high-resolution spatial proteomics data. In fact, Fluidigm sued Ionpath for patent infringement and tortious interference in September 2019 in the US District Court for the Northern District of California. In January, the court dismissed Fluidigm's claims of intentional interference with contractual relations, contributory infringement, induced infringement, and enhanced damages, but the patent infringement portion of the case is still ongoing with both companies scheduled to present arguments in October.
Lawsuit aside, there are a number of differences between the two platforms, one of the most notable being that the MIBIscope system uses an ion beam as opposed to a laser for ionizing samples, which Ionpath said gives its platform higher spatial resolution than the Hyperion system. The MIBIscope also differs from the Hyperion in that it uses a secondary-ion mass spec with a time-of-flight analyzer for its sample analysis while Hyperion uses Fluidigm's CyTOF analyzer.
Gubbens, who was named CEO in August, replacing Harris Fienberg, one of the company's cofounders, said that by the end of the year it would have an installed base of MIBIscopes in the mid-teens worldwide. He added that he expected the company would be able to sell a similar number of instruments in 2021.
"We need to start expanding our sales efforts and our channels to reach customers to start selling those instruments, and we will use the Series B money in part to invest in that," he said.
Gubbens said the company pulled back its instrument sales efforts in the face of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and decided to focus on its research services business instead.
"Companies were slashing their spending and were being much tighter with their budgets, and so it was going to be harder to sell instruments," he said.
Ionpath, which has roughly 40 employees, has seen strong growth in its services business throughout the year, Gubbens said. The company expects service orders to grow sixfold year over year in 2020 and is projecting another threefold increase in 2021.
Like other firms in the spatial proteomics space, the company has targeted pharma firms primarily and immuno-oncology research in particular. According to Gubbens, Ionpath has been providing research services for eight of the top 20 pharma companies as well as a number of smaller biotech firms.
Roughly 80 percent of its research services work is in immuno-oncology, with the remainder split between autoimmune disease and neurodegenerative disease. The company has not been running COVID-19 samples as part of its research services business, Gubbens said, but he noted that a number of the labs that own a MIBIscope platform have been using it for research into the virus. This has been a common pivot among single-cell proteomics firms with a focus in immuno-oncology, especially as the significance of the host immune response to SARS-CoV-2 became better understood.
In addition to building out its sales force, Ionpath plans to use the Series B funds to develop machine learning and AI tools for analyzing the data generated by its instruments.
"The datasets we deliver are very multi-dimensional, very complex," Gubbens said, noting that the company hoped to speed and simplify the process of analyzing this data. "To the extent that AI and machine learning can help us with that, that would be very valuable to Ionpath and MIBI applications, and so that is definitely an area we will be exploring, and that is in part what the Series B money will be used for."
While Ionpath is currently focused on the research market, the company has expressed interest in the past in developing its platform for clinical pathology work. Gubbens said that this continues to be a long-term goal for the firm.
"I think as the MIBI technology proves itself further and the cost of ownership comes down and the ease of use goes up, I think we will qualify ourselves for clinical workflows, as well," he said.
The movement of mass spec-based imaging into clinical pathology is an area of significant interest for at least one of Ionpath's new investors, Bruker, which has been working for years to develop clinical applications for its MALDI mass spec imaging platforms.
Gubbens said Ionpath sees MIBI and MALDI imaging as complementary technologies.
"You can do correlative studies with MALDI and MIBI that provide value that you wouldn't otherwise be able to get," he said. "MALDI gets to certain larger molecules that MIBI isn't so well suited for and can study those really well at a lower resolution, and then we can study protein expression at a much higher resolution at the same time."
"The correlation of those two datasets gives you tremendous insight into problems that you wouldn't otherwise get insight into," he added.
Ionpath currently offers antibodies to roughly 50 different protein targets. It also develops custom antibodies to targets requested by its research service customers and sells kits that allow researchers to create their own metal-conjugated antibodies.