Biotech Meets Cleantech: GenVault Aims to Deep Six the Laboratory Deep Freeze
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 the products work: a sample is placed on the storage material and allowed to dry. When researchers want to examine the sample, they separate it from the storage material using a reagent (in the case of paper) or water (for the matrix). All samples are identified with a unique DNA “barcode” than can be tracked with proprietary software. Both products preserve samples at ambient tempertures.
In addition, the company is testing a sponge-like collection device that can be used in epidemiological research or field studies. In one test now underway, an academic research group studying the spread of HIV is using the device to collect blood samples in remote African villages, where electricity is not available. In another test, researchers are using the device to collect blood samples from ailing birds in New Guinea.
Many of GenVaults customers are academic or government research centers. However, Wellis believes the thousands of routine clinical tests performed at doctors’ offices daily may provide the company with its best business opportunity. “There is a lot of sample movement from doctors’ offices to labs,” he said.
However, GenVault isn’t the only company eyeing this market. Biomatrica, another San Diego-based startup, has developed a technology that “shrink wraps” samples to preserve them at room temperature. Another competitor is Qiagen, a publicly traded Dutch company with about $900 million in annual sales. But Wellis says his company’s biggest competition is the status quo and a belief that “colder is better.” To overcome that chilling effect, GenVault must convince potential customers that its products save money and preserve samples at least as well as cold storage—for years, if necessary.
So far, GenVault has used its reagents to recover 20-year-old DNA from blood spots on neonatal screening cards maintained by the state of California. By using high temperatures to accelerate the aging process, GenVault has shown the mineral matrix can preserve DNA for the equivalent of 29 years. While that simulation is good enough for some researchers, others want to see how long samples remain viable under real-world conditions. To date, GenVault has demonstrated the mineral matrix can preserve samples for 1½ years at room temperature.
GenVault says its systems are cheaper to use than freezers. Its desktop system, for example, costs around $1,200 compared to $15,000 for a freezer capable of storing an equivalent number of samples. The company estimates the electric bill for keeping the freezer going comes to $1,000 annually. There’s no difference in the cost of supplies, Wellis says. “In our system, you would purchase our plates/tubes, in a freezer system, you would purchase tubes and boxes, so both have a similar consumable cost,” he said in an email.
The company’s technology isn’t suitable for living cells, which break apart when they come into contact with the storage materials. Wellis says finding an alternative to the freezer for living cells is high on the company’s to-do list. “Cells are the toughest nut,” he said. So researchers can’t turn a cold shoulder to cold storage just yet.