Bulldog Bio, a startup that distributes life science research tools from a range of international manufacturers, said this week that it has licensed patents covering thermal cycler gradient technology from Germany's Eppendorf.
The licensing agreement, which includes US Patent Nos. 6,767,512 and 7,074,367, clears the way for Bulldog to continue marketing the GenePro and LifePro gradient thermal cycler models manufactured by China's Bioer. Bulldog, headquartered in Portsmouth, NH, is the exclusive US distributor for Bioer's thermal cyclers.
Earlier this year, Hamburg-based Eppendorf licensed the same patents to Roche and Corning subsidiary Labnet (PCR Insider 4/7/2011).
Both patents concern the use of thermal gradient block technology that Eppendorf uses in its Mastercycler Pro Gradient, Mastercycler Gradient, and Mastercycler EP RealPlex thermal cycler models. The temperature-gradient technology is used to optimize the temperature of PCR reactions in different areas of a multiwell plate.
Bulldog, founded in 2009, has been distributing Bioer's thermal cyclers for around a year and a half. Mike Mortillaro, the co-owner of the firm, acknowledged that it's unusual for a distributor to negotiate an IP licensing deal on behalf of its supplier, but said that in the case of the Eppendorf IP, "we looked at the market … and we wanted to take a leadership position as far as getting this deal done so we could continue to sell."
The thermal gradient technology "was a feature that we clearly wanted and it was a market that we were willing to pay to play in," he added.
Mortillaro said that PCR is a "significant" and growing part of Bulldog's business, but by no means constitutes the "majority" of the company's sales. Indeed, Bioer is only one of nine partners that the distributor represents, supplying a broad range of instrumentation and reagents for life science research. The privately held firm does not disclose its revenues but claims that it has been profitable since inception and that its sales tripled between 2009 and 2010 and are on target to double in 2011.
The licensing agreement will allow Bulldog to proceed with developing a "suite of products" that will flesh out its PCR portfolio. While Mortillaro declined to provide details on upcoming products, he cited as an example a low-cost Taq polymerase developed by Bioer "that would be nice to partner with the thermal cyclers."
Bioer thermal cyclers were not available in the US until Bulldog began selling them, so they are relatively unknown to most potential customers. But Bioer, which claims to have launched the first thermal cycler in China based on Peltier technology in 1998, is currently the largest PCR instrument supplier in Asia.
"What Bioer brings is really a quality instrument that they've been manufacturing for over 10 years that had never been sold in the US before 2009," Mortillaro said. "Usually when people hear that something's been manufactured in China they think it's of low quality, but our experience with the company and the feedback from their distributors in Europe was that these products were rock-solid and rarely broke, and that's been our experience to date."
A key selling point of the Bioer systems is their low price. The 96-well LifePro, for example, has a list price of $3,495 with the thermal gradient and $2,995 without, compared to $5,000 or more for similar instruments from other manufacturers.
The GenePro, which comes with five different types of interchangeable blocks, starts at $2,995 for the base module with blocks ranging from $1,200 to $1,500 each. Similar configurations from other vendors can be in the range of $8,000 to $10,000 for the base module and a single block.
"We sell a reliable instrument at a very low price that has very similar thermal specifications to most of the big players out there," Mortillaro said. He noted, however, that the Bioer systems don't have the "bells and whistles" that come with systems from companies like Bio-Rad and Life Technologies, such as integrated computers and touch-screen displays.
"That type of additional hardware in the instrument can … add significantly to the cost of the product, which then has to be transferred to the selling price," Mortillaro said. Furthermore, "We find that most researchers aren't interested in those superfluous types of features. They just want a core product."
Mortillaro and Bulldog co-owner David Unger both served in sales, marketing, and product-management positions at MJ Research before that company was acquired by Bio-Rad in 2004 and then they both landed at Finnzymes, which was acquired by Thermo Fisher scientific in 2010.
Now Mortillaro and Unger are competing head-to-head against large suppliers such as Bio-Rad and Thermo Fisher, but they are confident that there is plenty of room in the market for specialty products from international companies that are too small to sell directly into the US.
While larger firms tend to take a broad approach to marketing their products, "we can focus," Mortillaro said. "We look for products and try to develop the niche where the products will excel."
While a large vendor might "approach its entire customer base with products, what we do is focus on the application and then focus our message to those researchers who are most apt to be doing those applications and most interested in those products," he said.
"We try to be very efficient and that allows us to reduce our cost and increase our return on investment on the marketing side."
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