Contacts: Professor Wilhelm Huck, Chemistry
Mentors: Dr. Julian White, MDS Analytical Technologies
The research team led by Professor Huck have developed a high-throughput assay technology platform that allows a number of experiments to be conducted in parallel. Each experiment is confined to a separate microscopic compartment, formed by making a water-in-oil emulsion. Each compartment consists of a microdroplet of water which contains all the ingredients for a unique experiment, and is separated from the other compartments by a continuous oil phase.
An example of this could be the generation of novel biological catalysts, where each droplet would contain a gene and an in vitro transcription/translation system with all the necessary ingredients for in vitro protein expression. Other applications could include combinatorial chemistry for drug discovery, where many similar but non-identical molecules need to be created and tested, and cell sorting.
The inventors lead a 20 person research team at the University of Cambridge, which brings together expertise in the fields of chemistry and biology, and which has received a £ 5 million grant to continue research in the area of microdroplets technology. This will allow them to build on their 10 years of experience and further their track record of academic publication in this area.
The i-Team’s challenge will be to identify novel applications for the assay platform, and to assess which of these applications have the greatest need for a platform of this kind, by contacting relevant industry experts. This will help to direct the future research and commercial development directions for the inventors.
Micro-droplets i-teams update – now a funded start-up company!
“As inventors we always believed that our microfluidic picodroplet technique was revolutionary, and that it could have a wide range of applications. We wanted to work with i-Teams to help us identify commercial uses outside of our own sphere of knowledge. The i-Team delivered excellent results for us, highlighting new applications and identifying the key questions that we would need to answer before our picodroplet systems would be of real interest to commercial partners.”
Professor Wilhelm Huck, Chemistry
Scientists from the University of Cambridge have been developing microfluidic and picodroplet oil/water emulsion technology since 2004. Their work in this area has led to them developing the capability of creating systems which can dispense and process up to 20,000 droplets per second, each one acting as an individual reaction chamber. By merging these droplets, and manipulating the environmental conditions within them, a precise reaction can proceed in each droplet, isolated from all others. Following these reactions, the droplets can be screened at a rate of several thousand per second, and those with interesting results can be selected and further analysed.
In 2007, the research group involved Cambridge Enterprise Limited, the technology transfer company of the University of Cambridge, in commercialising their work. Together, the research group and Cambridge Enterprise worked to identify the valuable IP that had been developed, and several patent applications were made to protect this.
In 2008, Cambridge Enterprise sought the help of i-Teams in exploring the potential applications of the picodroplet technology, identifying those with the most commercial potential, and analysing how they could be addressed.
The i-Teams project began with a meeting between Professor Wilhelm Huck and the student members of the picodroplets i-Team. Students on the team had a wide range of backgrounds including Chemistry, Molecular Biology, Chemical Engineering, Physiology, Engineering and Biotechnology. After receiving a description of the capabilities of the technology, the i-Team members and their team mentor Dr. Julian White (founder of genapta) spent some time exploring the multiple applications they could imagine for the technology. They generated a large number of exciting ideas, eventually focusing on three main areas. The team further explored each application by contacting companies working in the area, and key opinion leaders in the associated scientific fields. This led the team to select the key applications that the picodroplets technology could succeed in.
“The sheer number of applications that we imagined within our first brainstorming session made it clear that the microdroplet technology could make a big impact in a very wide range of fields. It was a fantastic experience to work within such a diverse group of students and to get to talk to both academics and business people about the potential of the technology. Through our research we learned very quickly the factors that would influence the scope of opportunity for each application including potential market size, competitor companies, and technological hurdles. In i-Teams I learned a great deal about the mix of features that make a new technology appropriate to take to a commercial application and the importance of having the right team of people to mediate that transition. If I ever go into a startup myself, I’m sure I will draw heavily on the lessons learned during the i-Teams project.”
Abigail Fox, PhD student, Molecular Biology
After the i-Teams project, the research team investigated the selected applications in greater depth using Cambridge Consultants Limited. The perceived commercial potential has led to the formation of a new company, Sphere Fluidics, that aims to engage with industry to apply picodroplet technology to commercial applications. In March 2010, Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds committed an investment of almost £200,000 in support of Sphere Fluidics. The company has a CEO and Chairman in place and plans to expand further.