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NRC Spinoff Aims to Commercialize FAIMS as Next-Generation Protein Separation Device

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Name: Ionalytics

Location: Ottawa, Ont.

Employees: 5

Unique Technology: high-field asymmetric waveform ion mobility mass spectrometry (FAIMS)

Business Plan: commercialize FAIMS technology for separating protein and other biomolecules, chemical and biological agents, and environmental monitoring

Hoping to find new markets in proteomics and other life science applications, the Canadian National Research Council (NRC) has spun-off a company to commercialize a technology called high-field asymmetric waveform ion mobility mass spectrometry (FAIMS), the NRC said last week.

The new Ottawa-based company, called Ionalytics, has received $2 million in startup funds from venture capital firm Genesys Capital Partners of Toronto to begin designing and manufacturing FAIMS instruments, which act as a mass spectrometry accessory by helping to separate ions. The company will customize the device for separating biological molecules, and potentially for other applications such as detecting chemical and biological agents and environmental monitoring.

Already the company has had discussions with several potential partners, said Roger Guevremont, a former NRC scientist who is serving as president of Ionalytics. Last week, Guevremont spoke with representatives from Caprion Pharmaceuticals, and Pfizer has also expressed interest, he said. Mass spectrometer-manufacturer MDS Sciex, which helped fund the development of the technology at the NRC, also remains a potential commercialization partner, Guevremont added.

Although the technology was invented almost 20 years ago in Russia, researchers at the NRC began applying FAIMS to separating biological molecules only in the last five years, Guevremont said. A Pittsburgh-based company called Mine Safety Appliances had investigated using FAIMS to detect explosives for military and other applications, but dropped the project in 1999, Guevremont said.

“I don’t think they realized the full potential of the technology,” Guevremont said of Mine Safety Appliances. “We recognized what it could do.”

Although the FAIMS device does not replace the mass spectrometer, it adds an additional ability to separate ions. FAIMS helps to separate the fragment ions by pushing them through a chamber filled with a gas such as oxygen or nitrogen in the presence of a strong electric field. Collisions between the ions and the gas molecules allow the device to separate proteins of the same molecular weight but different structural conformations.

The technique is similar to ion mobility mass spectrometry (IMMS), a technology licensed by Beyond Genomics, a Waltham, Mass-based systems biology company, because both techniques use gas-phase collisions to help separate ions of similar molecular weight. But the FAIMS device scans a range of voltages to sort certain ions, while IMMS disperses the ions in a manner similar to time-of-flight mass spectrometry, said David Clemmer, a chemistry professor at Indiana University and co-founder of Beyond Genomics.

Guevremont said FAIMS offers better sensitivity than IMMS, and Clemmer agreed that the FAIMS approach may offer some advantages because of its scanning approach, which would allow researchers to focus on particular ions of interest. “It’s not exactly clear to me what the improvement is, but I believe there’s an improvement in signal,” Clemmer said. “It has merit; it’s an interesting approach.”

Ionalytics currently employs a staff of five, and has offices on the NRC’s campus in Ottawa. Guevremont expects to hire several more employees, including a CEO and other business executives, in the next several months. Guevremont estimated that it would take about 12 months for the company to bring the FAIMS device to market.

— JSM

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