Armed with cash from a spring financing round and a rich patent portfolio, Blueshift Biotechnologies said last week that it is steaming toward a busy first quarter in 2005: The Sunnyvale, Calif., company said it plans to launch IsoCyte, its flagship product for fluorescence-based assays.
2004 has also been a busy year for Blueshift. The biotech startup secured its first private-equity financing in April, developed and sold a prototype of IsoCyte, and forged relationships with a handful of reagent companies that may serve as potential partners down the road.
Blueshift has chosen not to publicize any of these activities as it moves toward the first-quarter product launch. But last week, Chris Shumate, vice president of business development and one of three co-founders, shared with Inside Bioassays some details of the company’s plans moving forward — even as he remained guarded about specific financial details.
The spring financing round netted the company somewhere between $1 million and $5 million, but declined to provide an exact figure or source, according to Shumate.
“I don’t want to say exactly what the amount was, because it’s still fluid,” Shumate said. Regarding the company’s investor, he said “it’s an industry business angel, and I say that because it’s not just a high net-worth individual, but someone who has experience in founding companies, and currently has a few companies that he sees a synergy with.”
That synergy, according to Shumate, could span several areas, as Blueshift’s hope is that IsoCyte — and a number of next-generation instruments — will find application in everything from high-content primary screening of cells for drug discovery, to genotyping and SNP detection.
“We all started off thinking this was going to be a cell-based, high-content screening system,” Shumate said. “But we got a lot of people that said ‘If you can do cells, you can do beads, right? And if you can do beads, than you can do arrays.’”
The underlying principle of the instrument is a phrase Shumate and colleagues have coined “dynamic fluorimetry,” which really encompasses a slew of measurements that go beyond intensity and color — such as anisotropy, polarization, and lifetime — that one can make on fluorescent molecules. These measurements, in turn, allow users to follow what’s happening to a fluorophore — and whatever it’s attached to — in a cell or solution.
“What we do is raster this very small laser spot across the bottom, and we measure with [photomultiplier tubes] the emission coming off of wherever that spot was,” Shumate explained. “So we reconstruct the emission topography from knowing where we were exciting, so we do actually generate an image.”
(For more on Blueshift’s technology, see 1/12/04 column on GenomeWeb News, Inside Bioassays’ sister publication).
“I think one of the ways we’re trying to set ourselves apart is that there’s this realm of bulk fluorescence plate readers, and then there [are] microscopes, and there’s just this huge amount of application space between those — what we call object-based fluorimetry,” Shumate said. “That is, assigning fluorescence in a two-dimensional image associated with objects: beads, cells, arrays, and things like that.
“As a result, we want to do object-based fluorimetry at a high-throughput rate, and I think most of the microscope companies would probably not tell you that they’re good for primary screening,” he added. “I think they’ve all accepted the fact that it takes them 20 or 30 minutes to do a plate. And that’s 96 wells; they really don’t even try to go 1,536.”
Shumate claimed that the IsoCyte prototype can scan a plate — independent of density — in 200 seconds; that beta versions will be able to it in half that time; and that a follow-up instrument may be able to cut the number down to 10 seconds.
“And that’s independent of density,” he added. “We cover the entire footprint of a microplate. And those are some of our best-case speeds, if we’re on the order of 10-micron resolution. If we want to go down to 1-micron resolution, then that will go down by about a factor of ten. We’re still very comfortable with 100 seconds, or a few minutes though.”
The company also sees potential for the instrument in a variety of application areas beyond cell-based assays, such as Luminex bead-based assays, SNP identification, and genotyping. Shumate did admit, however, that high-content cellular screening is commercially promising. But a challenge remains that underscores a larger rift in the industry between those who want a picture of their assays, and those who just want the data.
“It’s amazing to me how many people still want to save images no matter what, and then you need these terabyte servers and these CD jukeboxes,” Shumate said. “It’s kind of like if the data’s there, pharma’s very loathe to get rid of it. We would … pull out the object characteristics, and never save the image.
“The file would be a big microplate reader file, and would be hundreds of [kilobytes] versus a [gigabyte]. If we save the images, we can make a gigabyte plate file too, but we’re giving you the option not to,” he added. “Microscopists have a hard time with that approach. Flow cytometry people — they’re fine with it. Just because you didn’t see the fluorescence go from the cytoplasm to the nucleus … it’s still measuring the biological effect that you’re interested in. And that’s slowly coming around.”
Blueshift has sold its first prototype to the same reagent company that it partnered with to verify assays on the IsoCyte. That company, which Shumate declined to name, is currently evaluating the instrument, and will provide feedback that Shumate says will help shape the beta version.
Meanwhile, Blueshift has also forged agreements with several other reagent companies, Shumate said, to “evaluate the next generation of their chemistries on our instrument.” He also declined to identify which companies, but said “you can imagine they’re kind of the ‘who’s who’ — the ones that are known for being leaders in certain fields like transcription factors, oligonucleotides, kinases, and chemokinases.”
Shumate said that January’s Lab Automation conference in San Jose, Calif., will be the first public debut and commercial launch of the IsoCyte, which is for anisotropy measurement only. The follow-on product, he added, will add fluorescent lifetime capabilities. And further on, Blueshift hopes to produce a series of follow-on products with injectors for doing ion channels and calcium assays, he said.
And with the product releases, Blueshift hopes to finally take in some significant revenue, as well as attract attention from other venture capitalists.
“We went for about a year without any salaries, so the three founders [of Blueshift] essentially put all our efforts into this and trying to raise money,” said Shumate. “Our plan is to get three to five beta customers, and we expect to have those beta customers signed up by Lab Automation, and we’re well on our way to that.”