Seattle Sensor Systems, Reborn in Twist of Fate, Spots Food Pathogens with a Little Box

6/2/10Follow @xconomy

Sometimes a startup is born when a couple of old friends bump into each other after years of going their separate ways. That’s what happened in February for Seattle Sensor Systems, when Carole Spangler e-mailed University of Washington genomics researcher Clem Furlong to ask him a scientific question and to catch up personally.

He wrote back with an update about how his family was doing. And Furlong added a more pointed question of his own.

“He told me, ‘I’m looking for somebody to run my biosensor company. Are you interested?’” Spangler recalled. “He said the magic words.”

These two had a lot to catch up on. They first met in the late 1990s when Furlong was working with Texas Instruments to develop a miniaturized chip for surface plasmon resonance. The technology is versatile enough to detect a wide variety of viruses, bacteria, small chemicals, or proteins in a sample. Spangler, a scientist herself with a doctorate in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University, had the job at UW’s tech transfer office in which she negotiated an agreement with Texas Instruments to support Furlong’s research and development. She finished the deal with Texas Instruments, learned the ropes of industry relations at UW, and took night classes on campus to get her MBA. She then left campus in 1999 for a stint as director of business development at Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN).

Years went by. Spangler took some time off to be a mom, teach a few classes at Seattle Pacific University, do some consulting, and land a full-time gig doing business development for Seattle-based Clario Medical Imaging. Then came her reunion with Furlong.

Seattle Sensor Systems has been around since it was incorporated in 2002. But in just four months since taking over earlier this year, Spangler is suddenly running a reborn company with a fair amount of buzz in local startup circles.

Carole Spangler

Carole Spangler

The idea is to commercialize that miniaturized surface plasmon resonance (SPR) tool. The basic technology has been around in the lab for 20 years, and there are currently three or four main companies, including GE Healthcare, Bio-Rad Laboratories, and Cepheid, that market large cart-bound systems that cost about $50,000 to $300,000. Those tools are operated by skilled technicians in central biology labs who can identify an unknown contaminant in, say, a water sample, or a mysterious white powder that officials fear might be a bioterrorist agent.

One of the big drawbacks of this standard technology is that it requires somebody in the field to package up a sample, ship it to the lab, and wait for a result in two or three days, Spangler says. No one has yet commercialized a portable version of SPR technology that can be used directly in the field, she says. That’s what got her excited. Furlong’s team at UW had spent 10 years, and about $8 million of grant funding from the Department of Defense, to build such a handy tool that could be carried around in the back of a Humvee. Unlike a mass spectrometer or a polymerase chain reaction machine, an SPR tool is thought to be more versatile because it can detect more than just one type of biological substance, Spangler says.

The portable SPR machine created by Seattle Sensor Systems, called Bio-Spy, isn’t just an idea on a whiteboard. The prototype weighs about six pounds and is about … Next Page »

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