SAN FRANCISCO — Fledgling high-content screening company Cellumen has landed its first customer as part of its hybrid business strategy to be an HCS service provider as well as a reagent provider, Inside Bioassays has learned.
In an interview conducted at Cambridge Healthtech Institute’s High-Content Analysis conference held here two weeks ago, Lansing Taylor, Cellumen’s CEO, said that Cellumen has forged a partnership with an undisclosed biotech that will serve as a litmus test for its proposed dual business strategy.
Although Taylor declined to provide further detail about the new customer, he said that he hoped an official announcement would be made sometime in February.
“We want to be an advanced high-content screening reagents company [that] can implement these advanced reagents into cell-based screens,” Taylor said. “But we also want to be a discovery partner company.”
Cellumen hopes that its founders’ expertise in the high-content screening market will help it deliver strong value as an HCS service provider. Taylor, along with Carnegie Mellon professor Allan Waggoner, launched the company in June (see Inside Bioassays, 6/29/2004).
It is the third start-up founded by Taylor and Waggoner in the last several years — the first was HCS stalwart Cellomics, which still retains Taylor on its board of directors; and the other was Biological Detection Systems, which was snatched up by Amersham Biosciences (since part of GE Healthcare) in 1996.
Along with another early hire, former Cellomics scientist Kenneth Giuliano, Cellumen’s co-founders bring with them expertise and experience in the three major areas of HCS: reagents, informatics, and instrumentation.
“We’re doing these partnerships as a front end to the company,” Taylor said. “The idea is that people come to us and say ‘Here’s the kind of thing we want to measure.’
“Then we put together the assay, run it on our high-content screening platform — which, no surprise, is a Cellomics instrument — and then we can transfer that to the customer for them to run it,” Taylor added. “So we can do it faster and more efficiently, and we believe better because of our level of expertise.”
Taylor said that he expects Cellumen to add value to those companies that are new to the HCS arena, as well as those companies that are relatively experienced.
“For people that have already made the investment into HCS, we can leverage their investment and give them more, faster,” he said. “For smaller biotech companies that haven’t made the investment ... they can do a collaborative project with us. Then they can look at the end result and say, ‘Now do I want to implement that internally?’.”
Taylor said that because it hasn’t yet landed a customer that desires the full screening service, Cellumen hasn’t completely settled on pricing. He also said that most assay service companies price on a per-well basis; therefore, it is difficult to compare Cellumen’s potential pricing.
“I think that the pricing will be negotiable based on the complexity of the project,” Taylor said.
Cellumen will be one of the first to offer drug-discovery services based exclusively on high-content image-based assays using live cells, which is still in its infancy in the world of drug screening. Therefore, the company faces the dual challenge of convincing potential customers of the utility of high-content screening, then demonstrating that it can perform the assays better.
“Advanced” HCS Reagents
The second and more forward-thinking prong of Cellumen’s dual business model is to become a provider of what Taylor calls “advanced” HCS reagents — that is, going beyond the standard set of reagents currently used, some of which have been staples in basic cell biology labs for many years. Cellumen will still use many of these tried-and-true reagents in its discovery services, but it is also building a repertoire of new reagents that it anticipates will increase the throughput and quality of data.
“I think that right now [one of the] major challenges of high-content screening [is] advanced reagents — going beyond antibodies and simple GFP tagging,” Taylor said. “For instance, building biosensors and building switches where you can turn things on and off, as well as reagents that can go a step beyond directed-siRNA technology.”
On the latter front, Cellumen is working with the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute to develop a random siRNA library, one of the subjects of a poster Taylor presented at the HCA conference. The major advantage of this approach, Taylor said, is that Cellumen will be able to knock down both coding and non-coding RNAs.
“It’s become clear that non-coding RNA is a new universe within the cell that has functions that are at many times protein-like,” he said. “So we now have to think of complex cell functions as an interplay not only of proteins, but also non-coding RNAs — which demands even more the systems cell biology [approach].”
Another example of advanced reagents that Taylor gave is the development of compounds that demonstrate a maximum apoptotic effect on cells with minimum perturbation of other cell parameters. Cellumen is using established informatics approaches to achieve this end, using search-engine firm Vivisimo’s ClusterMed to mine the scientific literature and Cellomics’ CellSpace Knowledge Miner product to help design specific compounds and assays.
“We used some new mapping techniques to look at five different [human tumor] cell types and multiple compounds, and we were able to identify compounds with maximum apoptotic induction activity, and minimal microtubule manipulation, cell-cycle modulation, or DNA content,” Taylor said.
Minimizing VC Dependence
Cellumen is banking on its HCS expertise both figuratively and literally. According to Taylor, the company has confidence enough in its approach to forego seeking large amounts of venture capital.
“We’re going to minimize equity investment,” Taylor said. “I am looking to raise about a half-million dollars from the venture world. We’ve submitted three [Small Business Innovation Research] grant applications on some of the new technologies, and I’ve started discussions with a couple of companies on strategic corporate investments. So I want to raise just a small amount of money, and drive the business through revenue growth.”
Thus far, Cellumen has raised approximately $500,000 in venture capital to date, with seed-funding contributions from the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse — which shares ties with Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center — as well as various Pennsylvania funding agencies.
One company to keep an eye on for future strategic investments is Cellomics, which has already agreed to lease instrumentation platforms and other resources to Cellumen.
Taylor said that Cellumen seeks to raise between $500,000 and $1 million more in VC cash, which he hopes the company will be able to secure “within the next three months.”