BEDFORD, Mass., Oct. 14, 2002 — Arradial Inc. has some very large, cavernous offices for a company devoted to the precise technology of microfluidics. Scientists there hope the space won’t stay empty for long.
After 18 months of perfecting its prototype, the 15-person startup is poised to get down to business: drug discovery using a microfluidic form of high-throughput screening that lets operators measure out and control liquid specimens as small as a few picoliters in volume.
The company already has $6 million in venture capital, raised from Boston University and the heavyweight VC firm Oxford Bioscience Partners. It is in talks with a few fellow genomics startups to do drug research for them, with the long-term goal of doing its own drug-discovery work.
“I was able to take an early look at the company and fell in love with it immediately,” said Stella Sung, Arradial’s chairman and a partner at Oxford Bioscence. “It’s not the microfluidics per se, but the whole integration of technologies that we like.”
The aim behind Arradial’s technology is to dispense and manipulate compounds in far smaller amounts than is done today. That will allow scientists to test and study rare materials — either expensive chemical compounds or rare biological tissues — because the system is more frugal with the available samples. Arradial says it can take one microgram of a target and screen 20,000 compounds against it. Its automated system can screen as many as 100,000 compounds per day.
The technologists behind Arradial are Samesh Kale and Allyn Hubbard. Kale, only 28 years old, first developed the idea of microfluidic throughput screening in the late 1990s while he was an undergraduate at Boston University doing an internship at Alexion Pharmaceuticals. Hubbard was Kale’s electrical engineering professor at BU.
While at Alexion, Kale worked under research chief Steve Squinto, who had wanted to explore microfluidics’ potential. Kale introduced him to Hubbard and they talked about what sort of microfluidic device might be created. “After a couple of brainstorming sessions, we came to the idea,” said Kale, who is now Arradial’s director of engineering.
Alexion shipped Kale back to Hubbard and paid for his graduate work at BU, with the microfluidic screening device Kale’s principal field of research. Kale and Hubbard built the prototype by 2000, and Alexion lined up Oxford Bioscience and Boston University’s investment arm to fund the company.
Arradial’s screening device is small enough to sit on a large lab table. It uses a system of glass capillaries to dispense chemical compounds and reagents in nanoscale amounts. Software controls a “vision” system that can determine the size of the dispensed drops.
“We assemble (the assays) in this dispensing unit, which actually might not be the best word for it,” Kale said. “This package can dispense, aspirate and store the compound. … It’s not ridiculously small, but small enough for the cost-savings and big enough for the automation we want.”
Other large drug companies such as Merck & Co. Inc. and Carl Zeiss Inc. have similar efforts under way. They, too, can screen 100,000 or more compounds in a day, but their equipment is usually a multipiece unit, not the compact item Arradial has created.
Abraham Stroock, a professor at Cornell University who specializes in microfluidics, said key to the success of Arradial’s approach will be its diversity: how many different compounds it can screen at high speeds, and how complex those protein compounds can be. He was not familiar with the details of Arradial’s technology, but said the pharmaceutical industry has been eager to head in that direction.
“If they can pull it off, they’d be way ahead of the curve,” Stroock said.
Hubbard said a substantial benefit is that Arradial can screen assays against multiple targets simultaneously, letting scientists study the complex gene expressions of disease immediately. Previous technology only lets scientists screen against one target at a time.
“It’s an all-in-one unit. … that’s really the key,” Hubbard said. “It’s a miniaturized, multifunction device.”
8 Preston Court
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Founded in November 2000 from technology developed at Boston University and spun off by Alexion Pharmaceuticals. Company founder Samesh Kale’s internship at Alexion led to a relationship between the firm and BU, where Kale completed Alexion-financed graduate studies before starting Arradial. Alexion also arranged for the company to receive financial contributions from BU and Oxford Bioscience Partners.
Small tech-related products and services
Arradial’s microfluidic system permits automated high-throughput screening using extremely small volumes of chemical compounds and reagents.
Arradial picked up $3 million in funding in November 2000 from Oxford Bioscience Partners (lead investor) and the BU Community Technology Fund. In March 2002, the company closed on an additional $4 million in funding from the same sources.
Barriers to market
Arradial’s assay process is unfamiliar to many large pharmaceutical firms, which may be slow to adopt the technology. Additionally, the niche is becoming crowded.
Immediate goal is to forge research partnerships with other genomics companies to bring in revenue; long-term goal is to conduct independent drug discovery research.
Why they’re in small tech
“Really, to solve the problem of drug discovery, of how you increase your ability to generate more information quickly,” said CEO Mark Tepper.
What keeps them up at night
“The complexity of what we’re trying to do, and having the engineering capability match with the drug discovery ideas,” Tepper said.
Selected relevant patent
Apparatus for performing assays at reaction sites
— Research by Gretchen McNeely