By Robert O’Connor
Small Times Correspondent
April 3, 2002 — A spinoff from the physics department of Trinity College Dublin is attracting strong support for the microfluidics technology it is developing for the biotech, health and drug industries.
Allegro Technologies has received $1.1 million in venture capital funding from the Guinness Ireland Ulster Bank Equity Fund and $264,000 from Enterprise Ireland, a government agency set up to promote homegrown business. The money will go to
|Allegro Technologies plans to launch its|
microfluidics product at the end of May.
Its customers will be pharmaceutical and
Jurgen Osing, Allegro’s chief executive and managing director, said that the investment will also enable Allegro to increase its staff from eight to 14 people over the next two months.
Allegro has also entered into a $1.5 million licensing agreement with Gilson Inc., a U.S. analytical instrument manufacturer. Gilson, based in Middleton, Wis., serves the biotech and pharmaceutical industries in the United States and Europe.
Allegro plans to launch its product at the International Conference and Exhibition on Drug Discovery May 27-30 in Basel, Switzerland.
“The customers primarily will be pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies who engage in high throughput screening, miniaturized assays,” Osing said.
Microfluidics, Osing said, is not well developed in Ireland. The main activity in Europe, he said, is in Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Allegro, Osing added, is also looking at possibilities in the DNA microarray market. This involves the application of DNA-based data to microchips to support medical research and diagnosis.
Allegro was founded in 2000. The nucleus of the company was the nanotechnology research group of Igor Shvets, the Trinity College professor under whom Osing studied for his Ph.D. Market research led the team to focus on biochip miniaturization in the life science sector.
The group found a bottleneck in the liquid handling area, particularly in the ability of technology to dispense very small volumes accurately, Osing said. This capability, Osing said, is vital to the success of miniaturized assays and the production of microarrays. The researchers were able to dispense liquids in measures as small as one nanoliter.
Such a capability is useful in the diagnosis of medical conditions. It is also of obvious benefit to pharmaceutical companies trying to squeeze as much research as possible out of costly laboratory compounds. Reducing the amount of material that is needed for research can also speed throughputs and save on storage and preservation costs. Allegro has designed its product to accommodate a wide range of fluids.
Osing said that the global drug development and drug research market is worth about $80 billion. He said that the instrumentation market to facilitate that research is worth about $2 billion.
Ireland has an active nanotechnology sector, according to Robert Flood, senior development adviser at Enterprise Ireland. Flood said that the government has funneled money into basic research through a body called Science Foundation Ireland. The two main themes, he said, are information and communications technologies and biotechnology.
Flood believes that nanotechnology is well suited to Ireland’s research infrastructure. “It’s an enabling technology that will actually straddle practically every single technological area,” he said. “An application developed in a chemistry lab can equally find its way into a computer or into a novel drug delivery system.”
Peter Sandys, a director of Seroba Bioventures, a newly formed Dublin-based biotech fund, said that the Irish government is making a major effort to build up the country’s scientific infrastructure. Apart from Science Foundation Ireland, Sandys said, the Higher Education Authority has been making money available for universities to improve their science facilities. At the same time, Sandys said, Enterprise Ireland has been working to commercialize biotech.
“This is a completely different climate to what we had before,” Sandys said, “particularly in the biotechnology area, where there was a minuscule budget.”
Sandys, who formerly ran the corporate finance operation in Dublin for what is now ABN Ambro, said that there are number of venture capital funds in Ireland focused on the information technology industry. In 2000, he said, 94 percent of all venture capital money in Ireland went into IT. Given the small size of the Irish economy, Sandys said, Irish IT startups have their eyes on overseas markets.
Sandys describes the attitude of Irish investors toward biotech as “embryonic.” Many, he said, made money in the dot-com economy and then lost it. They don’t want to repeat the experience. “The government is working hard to create the right climate,” he said. “It’s going to take success stories, however, to convince people.”
Osing said that Allegro is looking to establish further commercial relationships with leading systems suppliers either through licensing or distribution arrangements.
Osing said that Allegro’s product is distinguished by its “simplicity, robustness and price-performance ratio.” The competition, he said, will come from the main laboratory instrument manufacturers. They are located, he said, in Germany and the United Kingdom, but primarily in the United States. Osing declined to discuss Allegro’s expected revenues.
Allegro has filed 10 patent applications relating to its technology. “And there are a lot more coming in the pipeline, which we haven’t started prototyping yet,” Osing said.
Allegro is an international group. Osing is a German who came to Ireland to work on his Ph.D. Shvets is a native of Ukraine and a naturalized Irish citizen. Sergei Makarov, another member of the team, is Russian.
Ireland, Osing said, offers a congenial environment for research and entrepreneurship. He added that the Irish educational system has also done well in supplying trained talent. “There is a very strong focus on technology transfer out of research into the commercial world,” Osing said. “It is strongly encouraged here.”
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