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 of hiring a sales force to build relationships with a small group of customers who write big checks. Instead, Helixis is going to sell its machines over the Internet, and use web advertising, webinars, blogs, customer discussion forums, and other types of social media to create buzz.

What’s more, customers won’t have to take any risk shelling out big bucks for an unproven technology they might not like. Helixis is going to ship its units to researchers via UPS, and allow them to kick the tires during a weeklong trial period to see if they really want to buy one, Macemon says.

“Before, you had a 6-9 month sale cycle, and you’d have to ask your department head to sign off, and release the funds,” Macemon says. “Now you try it out, get some comparative data, work with a few external collaborators, and you can get it on your own time frame.”

The strategy depends on customers to write rave reviews on their own. “Your object is to get customer reviews, and when they come, it comes from a credible source and you get listed in scientific papers,” Macemon says.

This low-cost guerrilla marketing strategy was successfully deployed by NanoDrop Technologies, a Wilmington, DE-based maker of small-volume spectrophotometers, which was acquired by Waltham, MA-based Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO) in 2007.

I asked an obvious question—isn’t the company worried that by giving away machines before they are paid for, that some people might never pay? The answer surprised me: “NanoDrop never lost a unit,” Macemon says.

So even though Helixis doesn’t need to build up a sales force, it is growing. The company has about 30 employees, and expects to double in size this year as it manufactures the device in-house. Distribution will be done in the U.S. over the web, and Helixis has relationships in place with 22 different distributors who will sell it to customers in other countries, Macemon says.

This will be a very interesting year to watch Helixis grow, and to see what kind of impact it can have on molecular biology. Back in October, when I wrote about how Helixis had raised about $7.3 million in a $10 million venture round, I quoted from a presentation that Caltech’s Baltimore gave, in which he said, “the idea might be to have on the desktop of every scientist a machine that works as well as the most high-tech machines, but is affordable at the bench level.”

If the company can start delivering on that promise this year, who knows what kind of things researchers will do with the tools.

It’s sort of like if in the average American office, you had a situation where there’s only one computer with an Intel-powered microprocessor, yet “everyone in the office wants to use Google,” Dickinson says.

Now that every office worker has Google at their fingertips, the pace of information discovery has sped up greatly. The same thing could happen for biology if Helixis is right. “We believe that if you have more access to the machine, you’ll use it more,” Dickinson says. Macemon adds: “Being able to do a run on your own every 40 minutes allows people to be more creative.”

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