Scientists Lansing Taylor and Alan Waggoner have founded a new cell-based screening company called Cellumen, the company announced on June 14.
Cellumen is the third start-up founded by the two entrepreneurs in the last several years, and it blends technologies — high-content cell-based screening and fluorescence detection — that were an integral part of their previous companies: Cellomics and Biological Detection Systems. While Taylor’s name is associated with the development of HCS, Waggoner is often referred to as the “cy dye guy” for his pioneering work in developing cyanine fluorescent dyes.
The company announced its debut about a week before Cellomics — which is still widely regarded as the market leader in HCS — made public a major licensing agreement with the newly formed GE Healthcare. The agreement granted GE Healthcare’s biosciences unit the right to offer Cellomics’ patented core HCS methods to pharmaceutical customers (see related story, this issue: GE Healthcare Licenses Cellomics’ Core IP For High-Content Screening Methods).
The timing of the two announcements was not coincidental. Taylor, who along with Waggoner co-founded Cellomics in 1999, still serves on the company’s board and was involved in the nitty-gritty of the GE Healthcare licensing agreement. In fact, Taylor told Inside Bioassays that he delayed the official launch of Cellumen until the details of that agreement had been worked out.
Cellumen will be initially headquartered in Pittsburgh in the incubator of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, a public-private partnership that was founded by Taylor along with the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University (where Waggoner remains a professor), the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with the goal investing in and supporting regional life sciences companies.
According to an official statement, Cellumen will form drug-discovery collaborations with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and will use a combination of HCS and advanced, cell-based reagents and cell lines. According to Taylor, the company will use Cellomics’ instrumentation, but will develop its own set of HCS methods and technologies.
“The reagents are the driving force here,” Taylor told Inside Bioassays. “The goal is to create a novel class of reagents to manipulate and measure gene activity. We believe we’re experts in extracting more information out of cells.” Taylor declined to divulge any further details, saying only that “we’ve taken an option on a very novel gene manipulation technology.”
Taylor also said that Cellumen “doesn’t want to and can’t compete with” Cellomics, adding that he thought Cellomics “continues to be the market leader in HCS, software, reagents, and informatics solutions,” and that it is quickly becoming a profitable enterprise. “I think they’re going to continue to do very well,” he said.
Cellumen could actually serve to further Cellomics’ business strategy to expand the HCS market, which Taylor said was a “clear strategic decision” that was made a few years ago after Cellomics experienced some difficulty going public. The GE Healthcare licensing deal is the most recent example of this strategy.
GE Healthcare is familiar with Taylor and Waggoner’s technologies beyond the Cellomics dealings. Biological Detection Systems developed the cyanine fluorescent dyes that are widely used in molecular and cell biology research, including HCS. BDS was acquired by Amersham Biosciences in 1996, and Amersham in turn was acquired by GE just a few months ago as part of the genesis of GE’s new healthcare unit.
“I would say it’s more of a coincidence,” said John Sutton, vice president of product management within GE Healthcare’s biosciences division. “When we originally bought [BDS], it was for the cyanine dyes … and it so happened that Cellomics was associated with the company at the time.
We know Lansing … he’s a character within the industry and one of the original people associated with sub-cellular imaging,” Sutton added. “From that perspective, we’ve obviously had a relationship with him and talked to him for a number of years. But on the business side, the two transactions were completely separate.”
Taylor told Inside Bioassays that Cellumen’s initial business strategy will be to partner with biotech and pharma companies in the area of HCS, but said he expects that the company “will eventually license out technology.” He added that Cellumen has some industry partners in mind, although nothing was set in stone yet. “There are a number of groups out there that are interested in extending what they’re doing,” he said.
Taylor and former Cellomics scientist Kenneth Giuliano will be the first two employees at Cellumen, which expects to have a total staff of five or six employees by the end of its first year of operation.