11 Sep 2013   |   News

Re-inventing the test tube: Sphere Fluidics pioneers new approach to analysing cell samples

ACES Life Science Award winner and Cambridge spin-out wields biochips and water droplets that act as miniature test tubes to speed drug discovery

Few medical technology start-ups generate sales from day one. Sphere Fluidics, a 2010 spin-out from Cambridge University and winner of the ACES 2013 Life Sciences Award, had turnover of €35,000 in its first year of operation and is forecasting 2013 revenues of €1.3 million.
The company’s fast take-off is linked to technology that can accelerate drug discovery by rapidly and automatically analysing millions of cell samples. Sphere Fluidics’s approach relies on water droplets that serve as miniature test tubes, helping researchers to analyse and characterise single cells. Several tests are integrated into a disposable biochip a few square centimetres in size, with each biochip capable of processing tens of millions of miniaturised samples, replacing laborious manual experiments with high-volume automated analyses. 

The result is a huge increase in productivity and lower costs for researchers analysing single cells and how they react with and produce biomolecules. More efficient testing and analysis should help those studying biomolecules to zero in faster on interesting molecules. “What we have is a platform technology that will help pharmaceuticals companies in their hunt for bioactive molecules with specific properties,” says Chris Abell, Sphere Fluidics co-founder and director.  “Our technology is being used to identify and isolate antibodies of interest to biopharmaceutical companies.  Other companies have an interest in using it to learn about antibiotic resistance.”

Some 70 pharmaceuticals companies and international research organisations have deployed Sphere Fluidics’s technology and reagents, creating a growing stream of revenue. The company expects to become profitable in 2015. 

The right chemistry

Sphere Fluidics’s innovation involves a microfluidic biochip that needs ‘picodroplets’ – that is billionths of a litre - of materials to run tests on biomolecules and to rapidly discover new cell strains and molecules. The technology can for example be used to study the mechanisms of cancer cell resistance to chemotherapy, for the generation of new enzymes and to identify novel biotherapeutics. The company has a portfolio of 47 international patents across 10 patent families, with 22 granted to date.

Abell, professor of chemistry at Cambridge University, and Wilhelm Huck, now a professor at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, laid the foundations for Sphere Fluidics, with Abell pioneering new approaches to drug discovery using picodroplets of material, while Huck’s research revolves around using polymers as building blocks in nanotechnology and the ability to make tiny devices and systems, such as biochips.

Abell and Huck started working together in 2006, with Research Councils UK (RCUK) funding their research. The UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) then provided translational funding so that they could focus on areas with commercial potential.  In the run up to creating the business, the scientific team behind Sphere Fluidics received around €8 million in funding for the core technology from the EPSRC and the European Union. This included a grant from EPSRC of almost €2 million for the project “Microdroplet technology – the next stage”, to support research “to tackle biological, chemical and physical challenges”. 

“From there it seemed a natural move to set up a company,” says Abell, who already had launched several spin-outs. There was a good match, he says, between what the technology could do and the way in which the pharmaceuticals sector was going. 

Building a business

In May 2010 the Cambridge University technology transfer office, Cambridge Enterprise provided a convertible loan of €290,000 to fund the launch of Sphere Fluidics. The company’s next round of fund raising brought in more than just cash. It received €575,000 in two tranches from the Royal Society Enterprise Fund and business angels. With its ability to draw on some of the UK’s most eminent scientists to review any technology that requires financing, the Royal Society’s fund is unlike other sources of financial backing in providing scientific as well as financial endorsement. 

That investment laid the foundation for the company’s growth and the validation of its technology. At the beginning of 2013, Sphere Fluidics received €2 million in Series A funding from an angel funding syndicate led by 24Haymarket.

Sphere Fluidics’s strategy of selling products and services allowed it to generate income from day one. It also builds bespoke systems, allowing companies to use the technology as an integrated part of drug discovery. In addition, Sphere Fluidics is applying the technology to generate its own product portfolio, working in collaboration with joint venture partners.

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