Febit Aims to Automate Genomics Research

3/19/08

A German company that has come to the Boston area looking for capital and genomics expertise is hoping its technology will help speed up discoveries based on DNA science—leading to new disease treatments and perhaps one day to personalized medicine, in which doctors tailor therapies to a patient’s genetic makeup. Febit, of Heidelberg and Medford, MA, has created instruments for automating a lot of the work researchers must do to identify and understand how genes work.

“The promise of genomics technology has not been fulfilled yet,” says Peer Staehler, vice president of business development and a co-founder of Febit. Part of the reason, he claims, is that moving from making maps of a particular animal’s genetic makeup—as the Human Genome Project managed several years ago—to understanding what individual genes do and how they can be manipulated requires conducting lots of complex experiments and analyzing the reams of data they produce.

If a researcher wants to study, say, microRNAs, which are tiny molecules that regulate when a gene turns on and off, he might fabricate or buy a microarray—a small chip dotted with thousands of different RNA or DNA molecules—run the chip through several chemical reactions, and examine the chip to see which molecules reacted and how strongly. These days, that process means moving the microarray from one chemical bath to another, rinsing it off, and applying fluorescent dyes. “Although it creates a lot of data, it also involves a lot of error-prone manual steps,” Staehler says.

Febit machineFebit makes a machine to replace those various steps with one automated instrument. A researcher places his microarray in the Febit box, programs the experiment he wants to run, and grabs a cup of coffee while the machine takes care of everything. Part of the trick is that the machine relies on microfluidics, using only tiny amounts of the various chemicals and baths the standard set-up requires. Not only does that make the experiment small enough to run in a box sitting on a lab bench, it also allows the fluids to be moved in and out in seconds instead of minutes and to leave behind less residue. The box can also fabricate custom microarrays, and Febit’s custom software suggests testing protocols and helps analyze experimental results.

While other companies have focused on improving the design of the microarrays to hold more samples, no one else has put much effort into automating the testing process, Staehler says. The first version of the machine has been on the market since the end of 2005, and has been purchased by about 20 customers. A new, improved version is launching next month in Germany and in May in the U.S.. The basic machine costs about $100,000, and a bigger version with extended capabilities runs about twice that. “We’re not positioning ourselves as being particularly cheap,” says Staehler.

The company was originally founded in 1998, but suffered what Staehler called “a malfunction of European capital markets.” It was abandoned by some of its major shareholders, and in 2005 Staehler, who was one of the initial founders, and five others acquired all the assets of the company and relaunched it, coming out with a product later that year.

They also decided to open a sister operation in Medford. Being in the Boston area gave them access to new sources of capital and, Staehler says, one of the best areas for experts in biotech and bioinformatics. Febit now has about 60 employees in Europe and 15 in Medford, and Staehler expects the U.S. numbers to grow.

He won’t say how much funding Febit has from private investors, although he’s happy to tout the company’s intellectual property, which includes 20 issued patents and about 20 more pending ones.

Staehler sees the market for Febit’s products taking off as university researchers, biotech companies, and big pharma start to see the advantages of automating their discovery processes. “We see a lot of demand for the type of product we are offering,” Staehler says.

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