With approximately $3.5 million from NIH grants and private investors under its belt, La Jolla, Calif.-based biotech startup Vala Sciences debuted last week as a provider of reagents and software for conducting image-based cell assays for drug screening and cell biology research.
Jeffrey Price, an associate professor at the La Jolla-based Burnham Institute and adjunct professor of bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego, is one of Vala’s co-founders, and will serve as chairman and CEO.
Vala’s other co-founder is Edward Hunter, who will be a director and chief technology officer at the company.
Price told Inside Bioassays last week that the bulk of its start-up cash — about $2.5 million — comes from NIH Small Business Innovation Research grants; one for assay development, and one for cell image-based software analysis development. Vala also received $100,000 from the California Technology Investment Partnership Program, and the remainder from undisclosed angel investors.
Price and Hunter together founded high-throughput imaging company Q3DM in 1998, and developed the EIDAQ 100 high-throughput microscopy system as its flagship product. Beckman Coulter acquired Q3DM in December 2003, and subsequently modified the core instrument into its own cellular analysis system, the CellLab IC 100. Coincidentally, Beckman Coulter announced the official launch of the IC 100 just one day prior to Vala’s announced founding (see article in this issue, Beckman Coulter ‘Officially’ Launches Imaging Cytometer for High-Throughput Cellular Assays).
A large percentage — about 75 percent, Beckman Coulter rep Mark Cheetham told Inside Bioassays in December — of Q3DM’s former employees were integrated into Beckman Coulter. However, a few employees — most of whom helped develop CytoShop, the IC 100’s current image-analysis software — did not join Beckman, and have now joined Vala Sciences as part of its software development team.
Price said that Vala has designed an image-analysis software package completely different from CytoShop, and has its own patents pending. The first release of the software is “essentially done,” Price said, and will be ready to ship within the next few weeks.
“As a first release, of course, we’ll be looking to expand it as we go,” Price said. “We took a few years to develop our first release on the instrument-based system at Q3DM, and we took six to nine months to develop the first release of this software. So we have the background of what we consider to be cutting-edge cell-image based assay software.”
Vala’s software will utilize proprietary image-analysis algorithms to extract key features from fluorescence images of cells — a capability that is no different from most high-content image-analysis software on the market. But what sets Vala’s software apart from CytoShop — and it hopes from the rest of the market space — is that it is intended to be compatible with any fluorescence microscope or high-throughput cellular imaging system, and across multiple computer operating systems.
“When you design something for multiple operating systems and multiple computers, its architecture is fundamentally different,” Price said. “Of course, we are going to use our experience from building [CytoShop] to build our [software]. We want to add things that basically reduce the number of clicks, and generate measurements easier and easier.
“There is still some technological challenge to using these instruments and software … but we want to drive that by making at least a set of software tools that anybody can access,” Price added. “Researchers [may] use an instrument in a core facility, because maybe it’s too expensive for [them] to have in their lab at — then they can still pull the images back and have a way to analyze them with our software. I think [we can] make those tools available for large companies that are selling instruments as well.”
Vala may be entering a market rife with opportunity — the word at recent conferences such as Cambridge Healthtech Institute’s High-Content Analysis meeting is that the physical hardware right now is pretty good, but image analysis is still a stumbling block.
Most high-throughput imaging systems on the market have their own image-analysis software, most of which are designed to interface only with their accompanying instruments. Although many researchers may be content with the capabilities of these packages, just as many desire some degree of flexibility. In addition, more and more companies’ instruments now have an open architecture that allow them to be used with more than one type of user-supplied software.
High-content screening pioneer Cellomics has begun to recognize this trend, as it has made a recent effort to integrate its image-analysis software with other companies’ imaging platforms. The Pittsburgh-based company announced last year that it was working with GE Healthcare to design an interface between its vHCS Discovery Toolbox and GE’s IN Cell Analyzer instruments — although this was more at the “data-mining” level, and not the initial image-analysis level, John Sutton, a vice president of product management at GE Healthcare, told Inside Bioassays last July (see Inside Bioassays, 7/6/2004).
Judy Masucci, Cellomics’ director of marketing, said last week that Cellomics is in the process of opening its HCS software to other platforms, as well.
As for direct competition, German software firm Definiens is also marketing image-analysis software for cell-based assays, called Cellenger, that it said is based on cognitive object-recognition, and is intended to be applied across several instrumentation platforms (see Inside Bioassays, 12/14/2004).
In addition, Whitehead Institute researchers led by Anne Carpenter are developing an open-source cell-based image-analysis software package called CellProfiler, which is currently undergoing beta-testing, and may be available this spring, according to BioInform, a sister publication to Inside Bioassays.
Cell Image-Based Reagents
The other prong of Vala’s business model is reagents for image-based cellular assays, which the company intends to market — at least at first — coupled with related software for specific types of assays.
“We’ll look at both the development and marketing of software that works with particular reagents, and those will be sold both as packages and independently, depending on how people want to use them,” Price said. “We found that it’s best to develop the software tools to work on a particular application, and to validate them and make sure they work properly, and with the performance that you’re looking for.
“One of the challenges of this industry is that when you change the cells, dye, or compound, even small changes can alter the appearances of the image, and therefore the measurement,” he added. “It’s very important to develop the two together, and for people to understand in what context the measurements work”
At the outset, Vala will be using some assay reagents that are in the public domain, as well as in-licensing key reagents, Price said. But in many cases, he said that Vala will work with its customers to tailor software and reagent kits to a particular problem that they want to solve.
Vala already has four such collaborations in place — with the Chemical Genomics Research Consortium of the Gulf Coast Consortia and the Burnham Institute, for cellular assays in several areas; La Jolla-based RegeneMed, for 3D drug-toxicity assays in engineered liver tissue; and the University of Florida, for high-throughput genomic assays.
Price said that Vala has begun to explore partnerships with instrument manufacturers — though he declined to disclose which ones — to validate its software and reagents on their imaging systems, adding that he felt it was important that Vala’s software not be linked to any one platform.
Vala’s first reagent kit is for assaying PKC-alpha activity in 96-well plates, and is available via the company’s website at a list price of $325. The initial software package is available for one-year license periods at a price of $795 for academic users, and $4,595 for commercial users. The website indicates that these prices are available for a limited time.
Price said that the software and reagents will be the company’s main source of revenue for the time being, but that Vala may offer assay services to customers “as the need arises.” He also said that Vala “does not have any hard plans” to seek additional VC funding at this point, but likely will in the future.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge Vala faced at start-up was naming the company. Price told Inside Bioassays that a vala is a female seer, or soothsayer, from ancient Norse mythology.
“After having the name Quantitative 3-Dimensional Microscopy rolled into the name Q3DM — the tech guys kind of liked it, but the rest of the world thought it was unapproachable,” Price explained. “So we wanted something kind of generic that didn’t have a direct connection technologically. We were thinking of the imaging as a look into the future, in some sense.”