Proteins and the machinery of life
Fluidic Analytics’s technology speeds up lab work – and is heading for the consumer care sector
Two bolted-together machines – both designed and built in Cambridge – are set to significantly accelerate progress in technology studying proteins.
The Fluidity One by Fluidic Analytics will be launched in September, though it’s already up and running and three units have been sold. The firm has also bought a system designed for them by automation consultancy Innomech. The Innomech system is based around a Tecan Cavro Omni Flex liquid-handling robot, programmed to sample a protein solution on to a disposable chip before transferring it into the Fluidity One for reading. The automation of this function saves time and reduces errors.
Spun out of the Knowles Lab at the university’s Department of Chemistry in 2013, the firm is designing and manufacturing the Fluidity One at Chesterton Mill, where it’s been based since 2015.
Head of engineering Anthony Douglas put the technology into context as I studied a Fluidity One in the lab.
“DNA analysis technology has been around for 25 or 30 years,” said Anthony, “and there’s been very quick progression in the last 10 years, but proteins are where the action happens.
“If the DNA is a factory, the proteins are the people working in the factory. How DNA works is all down to proteins.”
Various factors can change the size of the proteins, and Fluidity One measures those changes. The system offers two data points in the first instance: size and concentration.
“So for example if you’re looking for signs of Alzheimer’s there’s a protein aggregating in the brain, forming amyloid plaques,” says Anthony. Amyloids are clusters of many protein molecules clumped together which can be a marker for dementia.
“So we enable scientists to investigate how aggregation happens, and what happens in the actual environment of the aggregation,” adds field application specialist Jonathan Faherty.
Fluidity One on its own requires manually loading samples. “The Fluidity One does the tests, and the Innomech system makes the mechanics of loading the samples easier,” says head of marketing Chris Thorne.
“It’s the most convenient way of doing production tests,” says Anthony of the outcome. “Essentially it’s a robot. Previously we had to load the samples – one every eight minutes. Now you can go for lunch, and not worry about making mistakes loading the samples. Laboratory automation is better.”
Fluidity One also makes available the underlying data on the two data points of size and concentration. Fortunately, marketing associate Sophie Bryant analogy is on hand with another canny analogy.
“It’s like a car,” Sophie says of the additional data available on Fluidity One. “You’ve got your speedometer, but if you want to find out how many miles per gallon you’re getting, or other aspects of how the engine is working, that’s available too.”
After the lab tour there’s time for a chat with CEO Andrew Lynn, a Canadian who came to Cambridge to do a PhD in material science and is now “in year 17 of a three-year stay in Cambridge”.
“We came out of the same department as Solexa – which was bought by Illumina,” says Andrew of Fluidic’s origins.
“The DNA will tell us about what can happen in biological terms, but proteins will tell us what’s happening right now. We’re working towards users being able to assess many proteins in a single test, what we call a ‘Protein Fingerprint’. Eventually the machine will be small enough to have in your bathroom and everyone should be able to have a protein characterisation test at some point.”
Customers will include universities, plus the biotech and pharma industries. But it doesn’t stop there.
“Sales will start with labs and move to clinics and then to consumer care, though that won’t be for several years,” says Andrew. “This process is now helping generate real business and revenues. We’re firmly on the path for the Protein Fingerprint.
“What we do is to help our customers, who are mostly lab specialists, understand proteins better and by association the mechanisms of life. So, in research for solutions to Alzheimer’s, we can help the sector better understand the mechanisms involved.”
The crucial factor in Fluidic Analytics’ business model is that this is a longer-term journey, which is surely what investors including Amadeus Capital Partners and Cambridge Innovation Capital appreciate.
“The typical venture model is to build something and sell it,” says Andrew. “There’s nothing wrong with that but where there’s a long-term vision – of taking everything we’ve created in the laboratory and applying it to clinical and then to consumer care… That’s not a short-term vision, it needs a team, and backers and a whole ecosystem and this development here is something that is going to last a long time. Arm, Abcam – these are the sort of companies we need here in Cambridge.”
The first finance round yielded £6.8million in 2015.
“The second was in late 2016,” says Andrew, “and we’re hopefully in a few months closing our latest round, for £20million, which is mostly from our current investors.
“Actually Cambridge Innovation Capital is the smallest of our institutional investors, and their investment is a wonderful sign of things getting bigger.” The other investors are Amadeus, Draper Esprit, IQ Capital, Parkwalk Advisors and the Cambridge Enterprise Seed Fund. Progress is such that a Zurich office is opening soon.
“Fluidity Two is being developed in Zurich,” he says, “but that’s three or four years off.”
This new model will be “for a diagnostic market, that’s the start of the journey towards consumer applications” and will be preceded by the Fluidity One W and the Fluidity One M. The ‘W’ will look at “protein-protein interaction: it will quantify the strength of those reactions and the timescale of those interactions”.
The Fluidity One costs about £20,000. Whether the combined Fluidity One plus Innomech system will eventually become one unit appears not to have yet been decided, but whatever the outcome, that’s simply a question of the packaging the instrument. What the system does is to speed up and enhance the journey of discovery into further appreciation of the machinery of life.
Innovations & Innovators
This article part of our series of features focused on Innovations & Innovators, published in association with Ensors, Nuffield Health, Cambridge Innovation Park and Hilton City Centre Hotel
Other articles in the series include: