Helixis, Like PC Firms of Old, Putting “Desktop” Genetics Tools on Every Biology Bench

1/25/10Follow @xconomy

The folks at Life Technologies, the giant Carlsbad, CA-based maker of supplies and instruments for biologists, like to say they seek to “democratize” molecular biology. That means simplifying sophisticated tests so they don’t have to be done in a few hard-core, central labs, but can be done at an everyday lab bench. This is the same philosophy that allowed early PCs to crush the old-school, hard-to-operate mainframe computers.

But Life Tech isn’t the only company in San Diego seeking to apply that idea to biology. Just a few miles down the road in Carlsbad, I met an intriguing startup called Helixis that could shake up the business of real-time PCR technology. I heard about it a few weeks ago from CEO Alex Dickinson and the company’s vice president of marketing, Judy Macemon.

The basic idea goes something like this: Advances in molecular biology depend on scientists being able to precisely measure how DNA is switched on or off in a given sample of, say, cancer cells, compared with healthy cells. Sophisticated real-time PCR machines are one of the workhorse technologies used for those experiments. Three major players—Life Tech, Roche, and Bio-Rad Laboratories—dominate the market. They sell machines that can cost as much as $50,000, need to be shared typically by an average of 10 researchers, and are operated in central labs, Dickinson says.

The idea at Helixis, hatched at the Caltech labotatories of Nobel laureate David Baltimore and Axel Scherer, is to create a real-time PCR technology that’s small enough to sit on the average lab bench, costs just $10,000, and performs with a higher degree of accuracy and consistency, Dickinson tells me.

Alex Dickinson

Alex Dickinson

“This will allow researchers much greater access to the [real-time PCR] machines, and enable them to be much more productive,” says Dickinson.

And this is not just a research project. The company has more than 150 orders for the product, to be marketed as Pixo. Helixis plans to start shipping its first versions to commercial customers in April, Macemon says.

If Helixis has sized up the market correctly, this tool should eliminate some bottlenecks that exist in the research world for RT-PCR. The company estimates that 10 researchers share the average existing machine that sits in a central lab.

The key enabling technology from Caltech, which makes this more broadly accessible, is in faster, simpler thermocycling. That really means that Helixis can heat up and cool down biological samples faster than the older machines, and make more copies of DNA for analysis. The Helixis approach also involves more precision, offering temperature variation from sample to sample that only sways 0.1 degrees Centigrade during an experiment, instead of 0.5 degrees on existing machines. That means there is one less variable researchers have to worry about that might mess up their experiments, Dickinson says.

That difference might not sound like much, but Dickinson insists it is “a big advantage.”

So the science is cool. But part of the innovation story here also is in the marketing. Helixis isn’t following the standard playbook … Next Page »

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