Biotech Meets Cleantech: GenVault Aims to Deep Six the Laboratory Deep Freeze

11/18/09

GenVault wants to bring biological samples in from the cold. For decades, the biological samples used to diagnose or study disease have been stored in freezers, which use a lot of electricity. GenVault markets dry-storage technologies that allow scientists to store samples—such as DNA from a blood test—at room temperature.

GenVault CEO David Wellis argues the company’s technologies free up lab space and are better for the environment. He says that one of GenVault’s desktop storage units can hold as many samples as an average-size lab freezer, which has the same carbon footprint as five automobiles. Freezers have another major drawback: a single power failure can destroy years of work.

Wellis says the time is right for his company. The use of genomic analysis for disease diagnosis, scientific research, and forensic criminal investigations is exploding, thanks in part to technical advances that enable the swift decoding of genes. All these genetic tests start with biological samples, such as blood, urine, or spit. The RAND Corp. recently estimated that more than 307 million tissue specimens are stored in the United States, with more than 20 million specimens added each year. That means more and more freezers are taking up lab space, and running up electricity bills.

GenVault, which is based about 26 miles north of San Diego, in Carlsbad, CA, estimates that sample transport and storage represents a $4.5 billion business opportunity. It is also an area in which innovation has been lacking. “All the technical development has occurred in sequencing and informatics,” says Wellis. “The management of samples has seen no innovation. It is a gaping hole.”

GenVault got started in late 2001 to fill that perceived hole. The venture-backed company has raised more than $32 million to date, and has numerous customers, including the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Genome Québec, and Amgen. The company expects to soon announce a new diagnostic lab customer that expects to store 750,000 samples using GenVault’s technology. Wellis says GenVault, which has 40 employees, could breakeven by the end of next year.

The company markets two products. One is a chemically treated paper that preserves bits of whole samples, such as blood or spit; the other a salt-like mineral matrix that preserves purified DNA. Here is how GenVault says … Next Page »

Denise Gellene is a former Los Angeles Times science writer and regular contributor to Xconomy. You can reach her at dgellene@xconomy.com Follow @

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