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A Flow Cytometer for Less Than $30K? Upstart Accuri's New Tool Stands to Transform Market

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SAN DIEGO – In a move that may transform the flow cytometry industry, start-up biotech Accuri Cytometers this week launched a flow cytometer that it believes is as good as or better than market-leading flow cytometers with similar specifications, but costs about 75 percent less than these rivals.
 
The new instrument, which will retail for about $25,000, stands to move flow cytometry out of core labs and onto the bench tops of individual researchers while significantly increasing its use in basic biomedical research, drug discovery, and proteomics — a brewing trend that has been slowed by the high cost of instrumentation.
 
Accuri introduced its flagship product, the C6 flow cytometer, at the American Society for Cell Biology annual meeting held here this week. Spun out from the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor-based company has been flying under the radar since last year, readying the cytometer for market by refining its hardware, software, and applications with input from undisclosed beta testers.
 
But with a large banner at its ASCB exhibit proclaiming “2 lasers, 6 detectors, less than $30,000 – A flow cytometer for all,” Accuri has appeared on everyone’s radar screen.
 
“We wanted to bring the power of a high-end flow cytometer to basic research laboratories,” David Olson, Accuri’s chief scientific officer, told CBA News at the meeting. To do this, Olson said, Accuri redesigned the concept of a flow cytometer from the ground up.
 
“The engineering team that built this had never seen a flow cytometer before,” he said. “What drops the cost is simplicity of design. We still have high-quality components.”
 
The C6, which is available for purchase now, is about the size of a microwave oven and weighs less than 30 pounds. It features two lasers – industry-standard 488- and 633-nm lines – can detect four colors, and contains two scatter channels.
 
The fluidics system is driven by a peristaltic pump and currently features a standard feed tube for introducing a cell suspension to the instrument, although the company next year plans to launch a system based on 96-well plate sampling (see related story, this issue).
 
According to Olson, the instrument features a simplified optical path that reduces alignment issues and increases sensitivity; 24-bit leading-edge chip technology – the only flow cytometer to feature such electronics – which allows a user to capture more data; and improved photomultiplier tube gain control.
 
Furthermore, Accuri has teamed with Ann Arbor-based software firm Menlo Innovations, which Olson said has been a key collaborator in developing what he considers to be simple, easy-to-use analysis software.
 
“We targeted three major things when we started: performance, affordability, and ease of use,” Olson said. “The software was never neglected, and it’s a major element of the instrument’s ease of use. Menlo has been excellent in this regard.”
 
According to data on the company’s website, all of these features add up to the C6 having sensitivity, dynamic range, and speed that are comparable to or better than flow cytometers marketed by competitors and clear market leaders Becton Dickinson and Beckman Coulter, as well as one marketed by Guava Technologies.
 
The C6’s $25,000 price tag, however, is at least one-fifth that of flow cytometers from all of the aforementioned companies except Guava. Most flow cytometers on the market today cost at least $100,000, according to industry estimates.
 
“Our initial market is people who are routine users of flow cytometers in core labs,” Jack Ball, Accuri’s chief commercial officer, told CBA News. “Our market statistics say that a large majority of those people are frustrated with their access.”
 
Typically, Ball said, a core lab requires somewhere between one and three weeks’ notice to book time on its instruments. “We will initially target those people who are using the market-leading products from both [Beckman Coulter] and [Becton Dickinson] in the core facilities and are just desperate to find routine access. At $25,000, they can afford to put one in their lab.”
 
“We are going to be expanding the number of scientists who are using flow cytometry as a routine tool,” added Jennifer Baird, Accuri’s president and CEO. “Our market research shows that people were using sub-optimal cell-analysis tools because they were convenient. They know that flow is better for those assays and experiments that they want to do, but they haven’t had access to an instrument.”
 
Since its inception in 1998, Guava has also attempted to drive down the cost of cellular analysis with its eye on the individual researcher, and it currently sells a bench top cell analyzer for around $50,000. However, this is Guava’s lowest-priced instrument, and it only has one laser, three-color detection, and limited scatter channels, and thus is not comparable to a high-end flow cytometer.
 
Guava also recently launched a version of its benchtop cell analyzer more suitable for core labs, with an additional laser and more detection channels, but that instrument is closer to $100,000.
 
And at a time when National Institutes of Health funding is more difficult than ever to come by, “once you get over $50,000, you’re pretty much in a different league in terms of NIH money,” Ball said.
 
Larry Sklar, a professor at the University of New Mexico Medical School and head of the National Institutes of Health-funded Molecular Libraries Screening Center located there, is a well-known proponent of flow cytometry and especially of its increased use in drug discovery. He told CBA News that a flow cytometer that costs under $30,000 may be “transformative” for biomedical research.
 
“It would make the technology accessible to everyone who wanted it, all hours of the day and night, as opposed to people going to shared flow cytometry facilities within institutions,” Sklar told CBA News this week. “I believe that applications will proliferate just because of accessibility. I think that the idea of having a high-throughput technology, or a plate-based technology that is capable of multiplexing, has the potential to allow people to really do proteomics-scale analyses – the idea that you can do whole families of interactions at a time.”
 

“We will initially target those people who are using the market-leading products from both [Beckman Coulter] and [Becton Dickinson] in the core facilities and are just desperate to find routine access. At $25,000, they can afford to put one in their lab.”

Sklar added that applications that are currently most typically done using spectrophotometers, microscopes, and other plate readers, and that use mammalian, bacterial, and yeast cells may all be conducive to and possibly improved by flow-cytometric analysis.
 
“There are a lot of things that people would do with flow cytometry, but it hasn’t actually penetrated their research,” he said. “I think this could make a big impact on what people will be able to do in basic biological and biomedical sciences, because if they’re working in a biology department, it may be too much trouble to come across to the medical school [core facility]. But for $30,000, the biology department could have its own instrument.”
 
Undoubtedly Accuri’s biggest hurdle will be convincing potential customers that for $25,000 they really are getting a true flow cytometer.
 
“We have been testing the instrument for the past year with people who are flow cytometry experts,” Baird said. “And we will continue to test and get feedback as we launch the product. We’ve had good results so far, and expect that trend to continue.”
 
Olson added that Accuri has “had far more requests to be a beta-tester than we’ve had opportunities to have people be beta testers. It’s been a very positive response.”
 
UNM’s Sklar, while not an official beta-tester, said he saw the C6 in action earlier this year, prior to its release. “I believe that the instrument has the capability of reaching the performance specifications that Accuri claims it will,” he said. “But I saw it several months ago and they were still fine-tuning it then.”
 
As Accuri begins selling the C6 and refining the 96-well version for market, it has a modest amount of venture capital backing. According to Baird, the company has raised approximately $5 million in VC cash from individual investors, and is currently seeking additional backers. The company also recently received a $2-million award from Michigan economic development agency 21st Century Jobs Fund.
 
In terms of intellectual property, Accuri founded the company on one University of Michigan patent that has been filed, but not yet awarded. The company has since filed 12 additional patents related to specific instrument design features.
 
“It took multiple innovations to build an instrument that is able to perform at this level and be affordable, and all of those innovations have been protected,” Olson said.

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