NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – SuperNova Diagnostics, a Germantown, Md.-based startup that recently emerged from stealth mode, is aiming to take a piece of the molecular diagnostics market with the launch of point-of-use tests based on liquid crystal display technology.
The firm, which presented in January at the Biotech Showcase in San Francisco — a new conference that ran concurrent with the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference and offered a platform for smaller and privately held firms — aims to overcome the limitations inherent in current molecular and immunoassay technologies.
SuperNova's AmpCrystal platform is based on technology that it licensed in from its current Chief Scientific Officer Reinhard Renneberg, formerly a researcher at the Max Planck Institute and now at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and a liquid crystal display (LCD) technology that it licensed from an unnamed, global player in that industry.
"The premise of the technology is simple," SuperNova Diagnostics President and CEO Neil Campbell told GenomeWeb Daily News in a recent interview. "There are no optical density type technologies out there that can measure directly the analytes of interests," such as DNA and proteins. He noted that all of the current technologies are either based on amplifying the signal or amplifying the target.
"So you either boost the signal or you boost the sample," said Campbell. "In both cases you induce potential errors, complexity of processing, [and the] cost definitely increases." And as a result, many molecular diagnostic products suffer from performance problems, usually sensitivity, he said.
Campbell said SuperNova decided to go in a different direction, basing its technology on LCD, a novel effort in which a signal could be boosted directly.
SuperNova is developing the crystals so they're hyper-dense energy mediated. They are then coated with a lipid to keep them stable and then attached, similar to other labels, to a piece of DNA, protein, or antibody through conjugation.
The SuperNova technology triggers the crystals, and when they implode and create the supernova reaction, the light generated comes up in a matter of milliseconds, and it stays up for a matter of days, Campbell explained.
"These are so bright, you can literally see them with the naked eye," he said. "Where the advantage comes in is in most diagnostic technologies when you fire them off, the light is produced for a very short period of time, a matter of a few seconds," which means there is a smaller amount of time to read the signal.
But because the SuperNova technology can light up the reaction for days, "we can take reads every five seconds, every 30 seconds, every minute, whatever we wanted to do to increase the performance," explained Campbell. Also, because the light is so bright, the firm can do direct measurement of the sample.
He also noted that the firm uses "simple LED diodes," which are relatively cheap to produce.
Another advantage noted by Campbell is the flexibility in integrating the technology into existing systems.
"We can take our technology and actually backward integrate into existing technologies out there," he said. "We can put them on an open system, like a Tecan or Hamilton fluorimeter, or we can put it in a closed system, like an Illumina or any other kind of diagnostic system."
Campbell said that the firm intends to develop the technology for use at the "point of interest," for both human health and non-human health applications. The point-of-interest — or point-of-care market as it's been called for years — presents a significant revenue opportunity. The firm cited figures from life sciences consulting firm Scientia Advisors in estimating that the point-of-care testing market will be valued at around $18 billion by 2013.
But the limitation of point-of-care tests so far, said Campbell, has been that the technologies have been miniaturizing complex technologies from the central lab.
"We're not miniaturizing anything," he said. "We're coming at this from a different perspective that's been proven to work in another industry. We just repurposed it to the application of medical diagnostics."
Campbell said that SuperNova's first products would be in the food safety and global health fields — non-human applications first, because the time to market is much quicker. The company also is looking for partners for human health applications.
Four Target Markets
Campbell said the firm is looking at four distinct markets: industrial diagnostics, animal diagnostics, biosecurity/biodefense, and human health. He said SuperNova is in the process of developing a final rapid test format for food safety applications and intends to launch those tests in the first half of next year in conjunction with one or two partners that it has not yet disclosed. He also said the firm would be looking at developing both molecular diagnostics and immunoassays.
SuperNova expects to pursue a three-prong strategy in addressing the market. First, it will develop its own branded products for decentralized testing. It also plans to put its technologies into closed systems, such as Roche, Abbott, Illumina, etc., and the third part of the strategy will involve working with research tools firms to integrate SuperNova's technology into their systems.
Campbell is very familiar with both the diagnostics and research tools markets, having previously served as senior director of commercial development for Celera, as well as holding executive management positions at Life Technologies, Igen, and Abbott Laboratories.
He said SuperNova is in discussions with potential partners who are developing custom biomarker assays for pharmaceutical firms that will eventually be used as clinical endpoints in trials on drugs or used as a companion diagnostic to sell a drug.
The firm was initially created in Hong Kong in 2007, before setting up its headquarters in the US a couple of years later. It has retained an office in Hong Kong and also has a partnership in China lined up to sell its products, and it has a European office in London. SuperNova employs 20 full-time employees outside of the US and eight full-time staffers in the US, mostly in R&D.
In addition to his role at SuperNova, Campbell runs a science technology investment fund in Asia, called Endeavour Capital, which has not invested directly in the firm but intends to invest in the next round of financing. However, Campbell has personally invested as part of an angel investor group that includes other members of the SuperNova management team and board members.
Others that have backed the firm include three primary investor groups: Imprimatur Capital (London), HDC Holdings (Hong Kong), and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"The company's got plenty of money, and we're looking at various strategic options," said Campbell. "I'd love to buy a publicly-traded company with cash and some technology. The problem is most of them are dying because of the economy and they don't have great technology. So, that's not much of an option."
He said that because SuperNova is already well-connected in Asia, it could potentially go public there. In addition, because the firm has near-market products that will be launched in Asia and in non-human health markets, he said it is a less risky play for investors. SuperNova also is discussing possible investments from bigger venture capital firms in the US, Campbell noted.
"Our exit is a simple one," said Campbell. "We want to provide liquidity to the investors, so being public is part of the plan."
The firm has set up four operating divisions to mirror the four application sectors. He said the firm could sell off those four divisions separately, because the buyers or partners would be different for each field.
"We're not in any hurry to strike a deal," said Campbell. "We want to strike the right deal with the right long-term partner."