Belgian center spins off company to sell drug-screening technology

Dec. 19, 2002 — Belgium’s IMEC, an independent microelectronics and microsystems research center, is trying to catch up with the entrepreneurial spirit in the United States.

One way of doing that is to commercialize novel technologies through spinoffs, so the research center has made a deal with the Belgian government to spin out at least one company a year to help create jobs. The latest example is Vivactiss, which owns the core patents to a novel calorimeter technology for high-throughput screening.

The technology can be used for the discovery of new drugs or chemical catalysts in the pharmaceutical, biotechnological and chemical industries.

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“Basically, our technology is extremely sensitive and can be applied to many different fields since it’s generic and label-free,” said Peter van Gerwen, one of Vivactiss’ founders. “We use an array with integrated micro temperature sensors at the bottom of each well. By measuring the temperature in each well, we are able to determine intermolecular activity.”

There are others who use a similar technique for assays. For example, Thermogenic Imaging, a FLIR Systems/GlaxoSmithKline joint venture, uses infrared cameras to detect heat generated by molecular interactions, “but these are 10 to 100 times less sensitive than our devices,” van Gerwen said.

“Generally, the thermal detection principle is not new, but nobody has succeeded in achieving similar sensitivities with microtechnology before. Compared to its macroworld counterpart, our technology speeds up measurements from two per day to perhaps thousands per day.”

Robert Mertens, vice president of microsystems, components and packaging at IMEC, expects a lot from Vivactiss. “The quality of research in Europe is at the same level as that in the U.S. It’s our entrepreneurial mentality that is still lagging.”

But this is changing. Research funding from industry is becoming increasingly important.

With a self-generated income of $93 million in 2001 — which amounts to 75 percent of the total annual budget — IMEC is one of Europe largest independent research centers in microelectronics, nanotechnology and enabling design methods.

“Our microsystems-related projects are funded by the Belgian government for only 40 percent, while the other 60 percent comes from national and international industry, the European Space Agency and the EU,” Mertens said.

“We have bilateral cooperation with all the major electronics firms worldwide. These include companies that work on microsystems and packaging. We are not yet working with nanotech-related companies.”

At the moment, Vivactiss is trying to raise first-round financing of $2 million, “but we notice that it’s currently more difficult to attract and convince investors, ” Mertens said.

The technology could be used by many of the big companies that invest heavily in discovery of novel active molecules. An example is DSM, a Dutch specialty chemicals company with a turnover of $6 billion, known for their life science products and industrial chemicals.

Oscar Goddijn, senior manager from DSM Venturing & Business Development, explained that DSM is expanding its life science activities, “but, currently, is less interested in participating in companies that focus on high-throughput screening technologies.”

“We noticed that in the last 10 years, big multinationals spent enormous sums of money on development of technologies with ever-increasing throughput but, contrary to the high expectations, that did not lead to a proportional increase in the number of sellable products; there is no guarantee that more advanced assay technology will result in more products. Therefore, we’re mainly interested in companies that use these (less advanced) platforms to focus on actual development of chemical products instead of technology.”

“We’ve yet to determine our final market approach. One way is to offer the advanced technology platform itself. Another might be to use the technology and concentrate on developing novel chemical products ourselves,” van Gerwen said.

Hans de Vries, principle scientist at DSM Fine Chemicals and professor at the University of Groningen, said that “if it works, it would be a fantastic technology.” But he is not convinced that it’s possible to detect molecular activity of new drugs with this technique. “It would mean they would be able to measure temperature differences in the order of a few millionth of a degree. If they’re able to do this, it would really be a breakthrough. Let’s wait and see their results first.”

De Vries is more comfortable with the idea of using it for catalysts, which would correspond to measuring tenths of a degree. “In this field, it would be a useful tool that has to compete with the conventional techniques based on fluorescence and radioactivity. Generally, it’s an interesting development, which we need to follow up on.”


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