Amnis Rolls Out Souped Up Scientific Tool, Just as Customers Start Feeling Flush

6/24/09Follow @xconomy

Seattle-based Amnis spun out of the University of Washington a decade ago, fired up about developing a new type of sophisticated imaging instrument with potential to enable all kinds of cool experiments in the lab. Yet it never really caught on in a big way, and nobody has yet published a groundbreaking paper in Nature or Science based on showing things only it can do.

Yet oddly enough, in an economic downturn, this could be Amnis’s breakout year. I gathered some interesting insights from CEO David Basiji about how Amnis has souped up its technology, right when its customers suddenly have more money to spend.

Amnis has been selling a tool since 2005 that’s sort of a cross between a traditional laboratory microscope for looking at cells, and a standard machine for counting and cataloging large numbers of cells—what’s known as a flow cytometer. Microscopes are great for providing detailed images, but they are slow, and are limited by what human eyes can see. Flow cytometers are good at giving quantitative cell counts in a sample—like the amount of CD4 or CD8 cells in the blood that signify HIV infection—but they don’t provide images that can provide subtle insights into variation of cells. They can’t tell you critical information about whether a protein target of cancer drugs, like VEGF, is in the cell body or on the surface, where a drug is more likely to hit it.

Tools to give researchers these finely-tuned insights aren’t cheap, and they make up a big market. The market for microscopes approaches $2 billion a year, led by major optics players like Zeiss, Nikon, and Olympus. Flow cytometers generate about $1 billion a year in sales, led by Becton Dickinson and Beckman Coulter. So far, little Seattle-based Amnis, with 33 employees, has carved out a tiny niche, generating $6 million last year for its tool that aspires to offer the best features of both, Basiji says.

Last month, Amnis rolled out a new second-generation product, called ImageStreamX, that it hopes will grab a much bigger share of the market. It’s 10 times faster than the older one, and with a starting price of $200,000—down from $285,000 for the older one. This new product rollout happens to coincide as researchers are scrambling to spend money fast as part of the $10 billion federal stimulus that’s flowing to the National Institutes of Health. Suddenly, Amnis has built up a backlog of 20 orders for its new machine. For a tool that starts at $200,000 and can run up to $500,000 with added features, that can add up to real money in a hurry.

“Before, our sales people used to have to do a lot of education about our product. Now we really have people coming to us,” Basiji says.

The first-generation product essentially created some interest in the Amnis technology, helping it build up a database … Next Page »

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