With $7 million in new funding, instrument firm 908 Devices is preparing to launch sales of its first miniature mass spec platform in early 2014.
That initial system will be targeted at the defense and security markets for applications such as the detection of explosives and chemical weapons. Looking forward, the company also plans to enter the life sciences space, going first after small molecule-focused fields like metabolomics and then potentially moving into proteomics and protein biomarker work, Chris Petty, 908 Devices' co-founder and vice president of business development, told ProteoMonitor.
Launched in February 2012 to commercialize work by University of North Carolina researcher and Caliper Life Sciences (now part of PerkinElmer) founder Michael Ramsey, 908 Devices is developing miniature mass spec systems based on what it terms its high pressure mass spectrometry, or HPMS, technology. This technology uses miniaturized ion traps, allowing the company's systems to operate at much higher pressures than conventional mass spectrometers, Petty noted.
Because 908 Devices' instruments can operate at these higher pressures, they don't require components like high-end vacuum pumps that contribute significantly to the price, size, and energy requirements of conventional mass specs, Petty said.
The company's first instrument, he said, will weigh roughly 3.5 pounds, operate off a battery for up to eight hours, and cost in the range of $45,000 to $50,000. This week, the firm announced that it had closed on a $7 million Series B funding round – initially reported last month by GenomeWeb Daily News – to support development and launch of this system. Including funds from new investor Schlumberger and previous investors ARCH Venture Partners, Razor's Edge Ventures, and University of Tokyo Edge Capital, the round followed on an $8.1 million Series A round the company closed in 2012.
The company's initial instrument won't have life science applications, but 908 Devices does aim to develop similarly compact and inexpensive instruments for this area, Petty said, adding that the firm is currently involved in several collaborations with metabolomics research groups on exploring the potential of the HPMS technology.
Proteomics work "is still a step away," he said. But, he noted, "that is where we see the technology going."
"We haven't done a ton of work [on protein applications] to date because that hasn't been our focus, but in principle [908 Devices' technology] should be extendable to larger molecules," Petty said. "The ion trap technology in general is very amenable to that application."
While careful to emphasize that 908 Devices' current focus remains on small molecule applications, UNC's Ramsey – also a co-founder of the firm – likewise said that the HPMS technology could find applications in proteomics.
"Obviously ion traps have been workhorses for doing proteomics-type analyses, and fundamentally the [HPMS] traps can look at very high mass ions," he said. "In my view, it's more [a matter] of optimization" of the devices for protein work.
In particular, Ramsey said, the technology could prove promising for targeted proteomics applications like clinical diagnostics, "where you are looking at the expression level of a particular protein."
Within proteomics, there are efforts afoot to position mass spectrometry as an alternative to antibody-based techniques like Western blotting for routine protein analysis. In a recent interview (PM 1/25/2013), for instance, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich researcher Ruedi Aebersold told ProteoMonitor that he envisioned a future in which "a biologist in a laboratory who is doing quantification of proteins by Western blotting would have access to a mass spectrometer and they could say, 'I need to measure these 60 proteins over 100 strains,' and they could simply download the assays and do the measurements."
Aebersold and his colleagues have been moving toward this goal by generating reference spectra libraries for various proteomes of interest, which will allow researchers to measure these proteins via either shotgun or targeted mass spec without the need for extensive assay development.
As Aebersold noted, however, generating such reference libraries is only half of the equation. To entice the average biologist to move from antibodies to mass spec for protein analysis, instrumentation needs to become lower cost and more convenient to use.
Were it able to successfully move into large-molecule analysis, 908 Devices could prove an interesting option in this regard.
"Certainly that sort of notion is in our heads," Ramsey said. "That you could have small footprint, lower priced devices that are sitting in small satellite labs and hospitals instead of shipping samples to core laboratories."
According to Petty, the company has already begun receiving inquiries from interested researchers involved in small molecule work.
"We were focused on the military application, and we started getting calls out of the blue from biologists," he said. "[They] were saying, 'I can't have a half-a-million dollar mass spec sitting on the corner of my desk, but at the same time I can't afford to send out all the samples that I have to a service lab, and our core facility is always overworked."
A life sciences platform would likely cost in the same $45,000 to $50,000 range as the military-focused devices and would be around the size of a personal PCR machine, Petty said.
Given the complexity of biological matrices like plasma, such work would require separation upfront of the mass spec analysis. Petty cited Ramsey's ongoing work on microfluidic separations, suggesting that a device like the microfluidic hybrid liquid chromatography/capillary electrophoresis/electrospray system his lab presented in a March paper in Analytical Chemistry could prove ideal for this purpose.
908 Devices is not alone in pursuing miniaturized mass spec instrumentation. In 2011, Surrey, UK-based Microsaic Systems launched its 3500 MiD, a single-quadrupole LC-MS system that is roughly the size of a desktop computer. In April, it launched an updated version of this technology, the 4000 MiD. Like 908 Devices' technology, the Microsaic machine is focused on small molecule applications and not currently suitable for proteomics work.