By Tony Fong
NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – One UK-based firm wants mass spectrometers to have a little less mass.
While most mass specs are about the size of a stove, Surrey, UK-based Microsaic Systems has developed an instrument about the size of a personal computer. Last month, hedging its future on its technology and on continuing R&D to further reduce the size of its platforms and extend its capabilities, the company began trading on the AIM market on the London Stock Exchange, raising £4 million ($6.5 million).
Its entry into the public market follows the launch in January of its platform called the 3500 MiD, which according to Microsaic CEO Alan Finlay could open up mass spectrometry to researchers who so far have been shut out from the technology.
The instrument is not meant to compete with the latest high-end mass specs that push the limits of mass accuracy and sensitivity. Instead, because of its size, the 3500 MiD is being positioned to provide access to smaller labs which have been unable to afford a mass spec, and larger ones that need additional mass specs but don't have enough space for them, said Finlay.
"We're not just targeting this for the replacement market," he told GenomeWeb Daily News last week. "We really see this as an additional capability that people can add to their lab. The potential is that you can have more mass specs and you can get more work done, analyze more samples, and eliminate bottlenecks."
Spun out of Imperial College London in 2001, Microsaic originally provided contract services to companies and government agencies while it developed its core technology at the same time. The contract work included mass spec-based research as well as microelectromechanical systems and microsystems, and optical and RF communication.
In 2006, however, the decision was made to focus on developing its technology, and in 2008 that became Microsaic's main priority, although the company still offers mass spec-based services to customize its product to a customers' applications.
At the heart of the company's technology is ionchip, which Microsaic says is the world's first chip-based mass analyzer. A mass analyzer is the component of the mass spectrometer that sorts ions by their masses and generates a fingerprint for a molecule. A detector then measures the abundance of each ion.
Finlay was reluctant to say too much about the technology behind the ionchip but said that certain features are microfabricated on silicon, which in turn are built on a glass substrate.
"And these features give us very high precision and accuracy" he said.
The features align electrodes, which generate electrical fields, which in turn filter ions based on their mass-to-charge ratio. "[By] miniaturizing the mass analyzer, we can reduce the overall size … of the system quite significantly," Finlay said. "And what the technology means is that we can build mass spec systems with a very high performance comparable to benchtop mass spec systems."
He declined to disclose the specs on the 3500 MiD, but said that the instrument is comparable to conventionally sized single quadrupole systems currently on the market. He said that in quadrupole mass specs the performance of an instrument is tied to alignment accuracy and precision, and the more closely aligned the electrodes, the better the mass spec's performance.
"And by making these features using semiconductor processes, we can achieve sub-micron tolerances, so the overall mechanical error of our device is far, far lower than that of a conventionally manufactured protocol, which would be made in a machine shop," Finlay said.
In addition to being smaller, the 3500 MiD is cheaper to run because it uses less electricity, gas, and solvent, and doesn't require much infrastructure, Finlay said. However, he declined to reveal the selling price of the system or how many systems the firm has sold, noting only that there have been "a number" of sales.
The 3500 MiD is not the first miniaturized mass spec from Microsaic. About four years ago, the company rolled out an instrument primarily for gas analysis applications, but because it could not be used to analyze liquids and was used mainly for volatile species such as hydrocarbons, it had limited appeal and was discontinued a few years ago, Finlay said.
Mass specs are used for a wide range of research from drug detection to chemical analysis to protein analyses. The 3500 MiD, he said, is primarily for small-molecule research, including new-drug development, food safety, and chemical synthesis.
The company has no sales force of its own and relies on original equipment manufacturing agreements with other vendors, so "specific applications and markets will to an extent be dependent on our partners' target markets," Finlay said.
For large-molecule research, however, further development of the technology is needed and is underway to extend the mass range, though Finlay declined to elaborate on the nature of the work.
As the largest mass spec firms — AB Sciex, Agilent Technologies, Bruker, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Waters — expand the capabilities of their instruments and launch new and improved technologies, Finlay acknowledged that Microsaic won't likely be able to compete with them.
But he may not have to, either, he said, given the wide range of mass spec-based applications that don't require game-changing technology. He also cited the 200,000 high-performance liquid chromatography platforms that are installed globally, of which, only 35,000 have a mass spec on the back end of the system.
"So the untapped market is the 165,000 [LCs] without a mass spec," Finlay said. "And you're really looking at the same kind of opportunity that's addressed by UV detection, diode array" and other technologies, which, don't provide as much information as a mass spectrometer.
The 3500 MiD is compatible with different LC and gas chromatography platforms from other vendors, he added. While Microsaic is offering the platform mainly as a stand-alone instrument, and the large mass spec firms are moving toward selling the instruments as part of a system — with an LC or GC attached on the front end — Microsaic is exploring potential partnerships with chromatography firms in order to bundle the 3500 MiD as part of a system, Finlay said.
Depending on the application, software from other vendors may be used to analyze data coming off the instrument, but Microsaic also offers software called Masscape for analysis of data from the 3500 MiD.
The company has raised a total of £9.2 million since its inception. Going public, Finlay said, "was the culmination of a plan which we've been executing on for the last four or five years."