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Genotyping Newcomer Hopes Its Low-End Instrument Will Replace Slab-Gel Sequencing

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A small company in southern California hopes to edge out traditional slab-gel sequencing technologies and position itself in the mid-range genotyping market with a novel instrument.

“I think this is a niche that has been neglected by the larger firms, [the] high-end, high-priced instrument manufacturers,” said Udo Henseler, CEO of BioCal Technology. “We set out to develop a DNA analyzer that can do genomic analysis in the $20,000 range.”

Founded in 1999 in Orange, BioCal has focused its technology on genotyping, according to Henseler. The company’s product platform is based on microchannel DNA-separation technology, and BioCal’s goal is to develop a low-cost, automated capillary electrophoresis system, and associated reagents.

BioCal’s genotyping entrée is based on multiplexed fluorescence detection, and relies on standard capillary electrophoresis. However, the instrument incorporates the company’s own consumables, which comprise a 12-cartridge “bundle” that combines gels, a separation channel, and optical fibers within each cartridge, according to Ming Liu, BioCal’s president.

“The customer just needs to insert the cartridge into the instrument — they don’t need to prepare any gels — and they start the run, and walk away,” Liu said in an interview this week. The instrument is able to load two 96-well sample trays that can handle 192 DNA samples over 2.5 hours of “non-stop analysis.”

BioCal expects to be ready to begin selling the product in the third quarter to the “lower-end genotyping market” — biotech companies, medical schools, research hospitals, military, and national law-enforcement, Henseler said. According to Liu, BioCal’s first customer is the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, which Liu said intends to use the genotyping instrument to study Down’s syndrome.

Slab in the Face

The nearest competing technology, slab-gel sequencers, “hasn’t had a face lift in 20 years,” said Henseler. “The technology is expensive and it’s prone to errors. But the world of the [human] genome is changing all of that, so a replacement technology was absolutely mandatory.

“The industry actually has risen to the challenge, with the very high-end and expensive DNA-sequencing instrumentation,” he said, but added: “Ours will be more affordable”

Henseler said BioCal’s auto-mated technology is cheap — it is expected to cost around $20,000 — offers greater resolution and sensitivity than slab-gels, and has high separation efficiency. The instrument, which does not yet have a name, currently works with nucleic acids and amino acids, though BioCal intends to expand its applications to include proteins, peptides, inorganic ions, and whole cells, Henseler said.

BioCal currently employs 11 people. Financial help from friends has been the biggest source of revenue for the company so far, though Henseler said the company is in negotiations with “with a couple of large venture-capital companies at this moment.”

“We are not at the stage where we need money to build an infrastructure — distribution, manufacturing, and so on,” said Henseler, who works from BioCal’s Florida offices. The company also has decided to outsource “as much of the technology” as possible to help with income.

To that end, BioCal has begun providing paternity testing services both for legal and “personal purposes,” the company said on its web site. BioCal collaborates with “hundreds” of professional testing labs around the United States.

Henseler would not say how much revenue that division has generated so far.

—KL

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