At a time when protein-identification services are dwindling from the marketplace, Protea BioSciences last week launched a new mass spectrometry-based service designed to rapidly identify proteins.
Called “gelSTAT,” the service is targeted specifically to researchers using liquid chromatography and MALDI mass spec to study peptide mass fingerprinting, and to those who need their proteins analyzed in five working days or less.
With gelSTAT, Protea also offers free gel-sample transport kits, destaining reagents, and prepaid sample shipment to its customers.
According to founder Steve Turner, the uniqueness of the service is its fast turnaround time. It’s not uncommon for a researcher to wait a month for data from a core facility, according to Turner, but at Protea, “we’re organized here so that if you get the sample to us by Friday, you will be able to download your complete data report and data sets by the following Friday.”
Protea, based in Morgantown, W.Va., offers a “warranty” that it will deliver the data for an experiment in five working days. Turner could not say what would happen if Protea were to miss the deadline.
He said that gelSTAT is aimed at quickly providing customers high-quality protein-analysis data. He said such customers include researchers nearing the end of a project or a publication deadline. Because the service targets a very specific need, Turner said, there is no risk that gelSTAT will cannibalize Protea’s other service businesses.
According to Turner, the company’s history of developing sample-preparation technologies — it has more than 100 products for eluting proteins from gel samples — has allowed it to differentiate itself from other protein-analysis firms, which typically are not involved in technology development and offer few or no products.
“We’ve invested in improving on the methods and have the production of these products in-house, so we’re bringing a lot to the services menu,” he said. “Most companies in the service [space] are pure service and are not advancing the technology.
“We’re organized here so that if you get the sample to us by Friday, you will be able to download your complete data report and data sets by the following Friday.”
“The whole point of accessing our services is that we are focused on the quality of the data and improving the quality of data that the person will get; it’s not a mill where we’re just putting sample in and sending what comes out,” Turner said. “We’re dedicating a lot more biological interest to this.”
Founded in late 2001, Protea initially focused on sample-preparation technologies for the first two years of its existence before adding services to its offerings.
In addition to gelSTAT, the company provides customized protein-analysis services designed to identify, characterize, and quantify proteins on projects that require a high degree of interaction with the client, Turner said, though he declined to identify any of its clients or the nature of the projects. The business, he said, is split evenly between academia and pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms.
Protea, which is privately held, has an ABI BIOiTRAQ MALDI TOF/TOF and a Thermo Fisher Scientific LTQ XL in its mass spectrometry laboratory and employs 20 full-time staffers.
Among the products Protea offers are gels, gel stains, titanium dioxide tips, microfilters, trapping columns, and protein and peptide standards. Turner said revenues are “roughly equal” between its products business and service business, but declined to elaborate.
The company is also currently developing lab-on-a-chip technology for chromatographic procedures that it anticipates bringing to market in the fall, Turner said.
On the Rebound?
Despite Turner’s plans for gelSTAT, the launch of the service comes at a time when many protein-analysis services are on life support.
Earlier in the decade when the bloom of proteomics was still fresh and entrepreneurial scientists saw profits in the science, it was commonplace to see new companies springing up to offer protein-analysis services. More recently, though, many of those shops have disappeared or recast their businesses, including Geneva Proteomics, Oxford Glycosciences, and MDS Proteomics.
Recently, Protagen, which started out in 1997 exclusively as a service-based firm, told ProteoMonitor that it had to change its business model and branch out to technology development in order to attract financing. While the company still provides protein-analysis services, they are designed specifically to fulfill the requirements of regulatory agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration [See PM 12/20/07].
“The only chance … to raise venture capital, to develop quicker, was in using … business models” with a focus on commercializing products, Christoph Hüls, CEO and president of Protagen, told ProteoMonitor in December. “As you can imagine, no venture capitalist would ever invest in a solely fee-for-service type business.”
Still, during the past year, citing a growing need, a handful of companies have either started protein-analysis services or increased their offerings, including Kinaxo Biotechnologies [See PM 05/24/07], which last spring purchased its first liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry system to bring its protein-analysis services in-house, and the NextGen Group, which late last year added three new protein biomarker services to its menu [See PM 11/15/07].
Harry Glorikian, managing partner at life-science consulting firm Scientia Advisors, said such services are “appropriate” for those who don’t have a mass spec of their own; can’t afford one; or if they have access to one, such as at a core facility, would have to wait too long to get their experiments analyzed.
Such services “may also have some proprietary methods for sample preparation, et cetera, that may make the results better,” he said.
According to Turner, protein-analysis services are on the rebound due to more research using 2D gels. “I think there’s a broader interest [among] individual laboratories getting mass-spectrometry analysis on their 2D gel samples,” he said. “A lot of people predicted the demise of the 2D gel, but that’s going to be around, and the information you get from 2D gel is so cost-effective, that market is going to expand as well.”
As research journals increasingly ask for raw data from researchers’ experiments, the need for protein-analysis services will increase, as well, he added. “I think the main driver is the need for protein identification data for research publications to accomplish protein-discovery objectives,” he said.
Indeed, the journal Nature Methods this month became the latest publication to “strongly recommend” that proteomics researchers deposit raw data accompanying their in a public repository when they submit their studies for possible publication [See PM 03/06/08].