COMPANY TO WATCH | Nancy Weil
August 18, 2004 | Not long after Tucson-based High Throughput Genomics (HTG) was founded in December 2000, investors retreated from funding life science tools vendors — especially those that, even if they showed great promise, had no products on the market.
Even so, HTG's array-based gene-expression assay technology, which enables faster high-throughput measurement of many genes simultaneously with a high (and reproducible) degree of accuracy, was sufficiently distinctive to attract financial backers such as Solstice Capital, which invested in HTG in January 2002.
"We were very excited about the opportunity," says Harry George, Solstice managing general partner. "We did this [investment] at a time when all of the venture firms were stampeding away from tools. But our feeling is that the next wave in terms of major discoveries is going to come from new tools."
George recognizes that many promising new tools "have not worked as advertised," but believes HTG is an exception. Headquartered in the Sonoran Desert, privately held HTG recently landed a licensing and supply deal with Merck to use HTG's ArrayPlate qNPA (quantitative nuclease protection assay) technology. That deal is the first with Big Pharma that can be publicly revealed, says HTG president and CEO Bruce Seligmann.
AT THE PLATE: HTG's universal oligonucleotide arrays can be programmed for specific applications.
HTG also was recently awarded a two-year $500,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute, funding that will allow it to identify and validate gene sets for toxicity studies and develop a new array product based on its existing intellectual property.Faster Than PCR
Seligmann, who formerly worked at NIH, Ciba-Geigy, and two biotech startups, needs only a slight prompt to launch into a review of his company and its products. He barely draws breath as he moves from discussing the strengths of HTG's platform and its intellectual property, to ongoing research on two lines of future products, to the possibility of an initial public offering or future acquisition.
"What sets us apart is that we set out to develop a platform to measure gene expression in the way that it really needs to be measured to satisfy drug discovery and to realize the promise of genomics," Seligmann says. He points out that HTG's platform, which he helped develop at HTG's predecessor Systems Integration Drug Discovery Co., enables scientists to measure small changes in gene-expression assays and to put those into context based on the measurements they are taking. It also allows them to test more samples than traditional methods. "We can do in one day what it would take months to do by PCR," Seligmann says.
HTG's ArrayPlate is a 96-well microplate with a 16-target universal array in each well, which the company customizes to measure DNA, RNA, or protein targets. The multiplexed molecular profiling product is touted as the first of its kind, capable of measuring multiple genes and proteins simultaneously for purposes from high-throughput screening to target validation and SNP analysis. It uses high sample throughput found in traditional microplates combined with novel array technology and qNPA. The combination allows researchers fast, accurate, reproducible results in a reagent-addition-only procedure, the company says.
|High Throughput Genomics
Focus: Molecular biology-based tool set for drug discovery
Intellectual property: Universal array, qNPA, and Directed Sort Combinatorial Synthesis (DSCS) technology
Key execs: Bruce Seligmann, CEO; Kirk Collamer, CFO; Ralph Martel, VP R&D
Key investors: Solstice Capital, Tucson Ventures, Valley Ventures
Deals: Multiyear licensing and supply agreement with Merck; National Cancer Institute two-year $500,000 grant for toxicity studies and new array product
Number of staff: 16
In addition to designing custom assays for clients, HTG offers a service to test samples. Use of qNPA makes RNA extraction and purification redundant. "Those custom reagents [used in qNPA] protect the RNA that you're trying to measure from degradation," Seligmann says.
The company's 16 employees include eight researchers, along with the executive management team — Seligmann and three vice presidents who handle finance, marketing and sales, and research and development. "It's lean," Seligmann admits, "but we've been successful."
One company taking a keen interest in HTG's platform is Exagen Diagnostics in Albuquerque, which is evaluating how HTG's products might fit with its other assay technologies, according to Bo Saxberg, president of consultancy DDO Strategic Services and a member of Exagen's board of directors. "I am pretty enthusiastic about trying to find ways that this particular approach can be applied and what can be done with it" to advance assay technology, he says.
Despite groundbreaking discoveries such as PCR, it seems clear that no one tool will be the end-all and be-all of assays. HTG's approach could have "broad applications," Saxberg says, and has garnered attention. "I expect them to continue to get some traction" in the industry, he says.
Nancy Weil is assistant news editor for IDG News Service.