These are dark days in some parts of the proteomics world, with industrial players and academics running out of cash. Prolinx of Bothell, Wash., which had developed molecular coupling chemistries with applications in protein microarrays and was working on an instrument for measuring biomolecular interactions by surface plasmon resonance, has closed its doors, according to a scientific advisor. Meanwhile, the Danish government will not renew funding for a program that helps sustain several proteomics groups, and the state of Michigan has slashed funds for its Life Sciences Corridor initiative.
Prolinx assets were sold on March 13 and March 20 by auction house Dovebid, and the company’s old phone number is no longer in service. Several Washington State-based news sources reported that Prolinx had closed shop and laid off its remaining employees at the end of last month.
While company executives, including CEO Gregory Abbott, did not return repeated phone and e-mail requests for comment, members of the company’s scientific advisory board expressed regrets.
“I was certainly sad to hear it, because I think they had a number of good ideas, and if they had had a little more money and a little more time, I think they could have made it,” said Claude Meares, chairman of chemistry at the University of California, Davis, and a member of the SAB.
The final move followed a restructuring effort back in October, when Prolinx let go some 20 employees — about half its staff — and suspended marketing of most of its products. At that time, the company said it was focusing on finishing the development of a benchtop instrument called Acapella for measuring biomolecular interactions by surface plasmon resonance in up to eight samples. This instrument was going to include both Prolinx’s chemical affinity technology, Versalinx, and an SPR detection chip called Spreeta 2000 from Texas Instruments. Originally, it was slated to come to market in 2002. “The technology was promising,” said Richard Zare, a professor of physical and analytical chemistry at Stanford University and a SAB member, who was not aware of the company’s closedown last week. He recently published a paper in Analytical Chemistry involving a prototype of the instrument. “It looked to me that the system would be superior to Biacore,” he said.
In 2001, Prolinx raised $16.8 million in venture capital from eight investors: Tullis-Dickerson, BA Venture Partners, Axiom Venture Partners, Technology Funding, MDS Ventures Pacific, Sofinnova Ventures, Stephens Group, and Wheatley Partners. None of these was available for comment at press time.
Prolinx, located just north of Seattle, was founded in 1995 and had 40 employees at its peak. As of last summer, it had 27 US patents issued — most of them around its chemical affinity technology — and several others pending.
The company had a number of products on the market, among them Versalinx, pairs of coupling reagents that could be adapted for a variety of assays, which it launched in 2000. These reagents, derivatives of phenylboronic acid and salicylhydroxamic acid, interact specifically and reversibly. Based on this technology, Prolinx launched an open protein array platform in 2001, which allowed for proteins to be immobilized on array surfaces. Besides products for the proteomics market, it sold a kit for removing unbound dye from DNA sequencing and cDNA labeling reactions.
The company also had a large number of marketing and distribution and other partnerships with life science and reagent companies. For example, Applied Biosystems, Nanogen, and SyStemix all held licenses to the Versalinx technology for various applications.
Prolinx’s SAB boasted a number of big names, including Leroy Hood, director of the Institute of Systems Biology, Charles Campbell, co-director of the Center for Nanotechnology at the University of Washington, and Ronald Davis, director of the Stanford Genome Technology Center. Representatives from investors Tullis-Dickerson, BA Venture Partners, and Stephens Group had seats on its board of directors.
But it’s not only proteomics companies that are running dry these days. Funding for the Danish Biotechnology Instrument Center (DABIC), which comprises 16 groups at five universities in Denmark, runs out at the end of September, with no follow-on funding in sight. The program was established in 2000 with €18 million for three years from the Danish Research Councils. The idea was that afterwards, universities would pick up the slack, according to Peter Roepstorff, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense and director of DABIC, but this has not happened. About €5.5 million of the funding went to proteomics-related research at Odense, he said. Of this, Roepstorff’s own laboratory, the Protein Research Group, received approximately €2 million, about €1.65 million went to the Center for Proteome Analysis, headed by Peter Mose Larsen and Stephen Fey, and less than €0.5 million to Matthias Mann’s Protein Interaction Laboratory.
Roepstorff said that at present, part of his share in the DABIC grant covers not only the day-to-day running costs for his lab, including consumables, licenses for software, and service work, but also four postdoctoral positions. The funding is essential to keep activities in his group going, he said — including numerous national and international collaborations. At any time, 50-60 people work in his laboratory, among them a large number of visiting scientists. “If nothing comes down, we will simply have to close our instruments because we cannot afford to have them running,” Roepstorff said. He estimates that he needs about €350,000 per year to keep the basic functions going, a prerequisite for acquiring any project-specific grants from national and international funding agencies.
Roepstorff’s predicament illustrates that betting on a continuing stream of government funding is a risky strategy these days. Mann, which had one position in his group funded through DABIC, said that he knew the funding was limited to three years, and therefore did not plan to rely on it beyond this time.
Denmark is not the only case of cutbacks: Earlier this month, the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor, a 20-year initiative launched by the state of Michigan in 1999 to boost its life sciences industry using $1 billion in tobacco settlement money, had its 2003 funding cut from $45 million to $37.5 million. Later, the state’s governor announced that the corridor’s funding would likely be slashed further next year, to $20 million. Nevertheless, funding for the Michigan Proteome Consortium is secure for at least another year, according to its director Phil Andrews. A competitive review next month will determine the future funding level, but “given our progress in meeting and exceeding milestones, I expect that the commitment to our fourth year of funding will be honored,” he said in an e-mail message.