By Ben Butkus
OpenPCR, a startup venture led by two Bay Area amateur biologists, said last week that it has begun shipping its flagship product — a pre-fabricated kit for assembling a personal thermal cycler that costs just over $500.
So far OpenPCR has shipped nearly 50 of its kits to high schools, biotechnology companies, and hobbyists in five continents and 13 countries, co-founder Tito Jankowski told PCR Insider this week.
However, Jankowski and business partner Josh Perfetto have thus far only recouped a fraction of the cost of developing the platform, and the nascent company is now seeking to enlist additional manufacturing and sales and marketing muscle to boost sales of the kit.
Jankowski and Perfetto, members of biology hobbyist group DIYBio, began their venture early last year to develop a personal PCR machine that would be affordable and reliable enough for use by a wide swath of customers including secondary schools, amateur biologists, medical testing labs in resource-poor countries, and even larger academic institutions and companies seeking to save money on what has become a routine laboratory workhorse.
As reported by PCR Insider in February, the duo successfully raised approximately $12,000 from 158 people through the online fundraising site Kickstarter.com in order to finish testing their prototype and manufacture a "repeatable, works-all-the-time device."(PCR Insider, 2/10/11)
The result, which began shipping last week, is a $512 kit that includes "all the parts, tools, and … printed instructions" and requires only a screwdriver to assemble, Jankowski said in an e-mail.
"The price of a traditional PCR machine is around $3,000," Jankowski said. "So, did people in garages have good PCR machines? Not really. How about high school or middle school teachers? Nope. How about smaller medical testing labs or labs in India or China? Nope. Even some big bio labs try their luck on eBay. We set out to change that."
Jankowski said that he and Perfetto believe that the OpenPCR instrument is currently the "most affordable and most compact machine out there," as well as the only open-source thermal cycler on the market.
The final product is a 16-well machine that has a built-in screen and can be controlled by a computer with plug-and-play functionality thanks to an Arduino USB device. Jankowski and Perfetto also spent a lot of time working on optimizing the kit for home or laboratory assembly.
"We designed OpenPCR to be assembled by hand," Jankowski said. "The printed build instructions are a big part of OpenPCR and we did a lot of work to get them right."
Also, as the group neared completion of a ready-to-assemble device, they identified a few areas that were particularly challenging to bring in under anticipated cost.
"We switched from thermal paste to thermal pads (not messy, no need for gloves); assembled circuit boards (no need for a [professional] soldering setup); and pre-epoxied the thermistor," Jankowski said. "The OpenPCR kit is easy to build because of those decisions."
Overall, Jankowski and Perfetto estimate that besides the approximately $12,000 raised by Kickstarter.com, the duo, along with a few volunteers, spent about $115,000 of time and sweat equity developing OpenPCR. The most money the partners could have brought in from the nearly 50 orders shipped so far is around $25,000, although this number is likely much less since they awarded OpenPCR kits to various Kickstart donors.
As such, OpenPCR is now seeking additional helpers to get the word out about the platform and to manufacture additional kits for sale.
"Along this journey we uncovered a lot of opportunities for PCR and other biological devices," Jankowski said. "We're a new company and would love to meet other passionate people. Our hurdles right now are manufacturing (mechanical engineers); distribution (sales and marketers); and new hardware/software/bioware and industrial design."
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