Walk into any biology lab, and you’ll see freezers full of precious biological samples that researchers typically use to gain insights on cancer, heart disease or some other ailment. The freezers run around the clock for years, sucking up lots of electricity.
But what if scientists could store their samples at room temperature by just sticking them on a shelf, in a reasonably dry place? San Diego-based Biomatrica has been pushing this idea since it crafted its prototype technology in 2004. Now Biomatrica has started to gain some market acceptance. President Rolf Muller says sales have doubled in the last year, the company has grown from 13 to 25 employees, and the business became cash-flow positive.
Keeping biological samples cold in the lab, and as they are shipped between researchers around the world, is a big business worth an estimated $38 billion worldwide, Biomatrica says. The volume of samples stored in the freezer is on a steep growth curve as scientists dig deeper into analyzing the DNA, RNA, and proteins in those samples. The Rand Corp. recently estimated there are 307 million tissue specimens stored in the U.S., and 20 million more are added each year. Years of research can literally go down the drain if a freezer breaks down because of a power outage or a mechanical failure. So Biomatrica hopes to build demand for both practical and altruistic reasons among biologists who are looking for ways to both safeguard their specimens and work in a more environmentally-friendly manner.
“The concept is revolutionary,” Muller says. “It’s a new way of preserving biological materials and keeping them stable. It’s like inventing canning for the food industry.”
OK, but before we get too breathless, it’s worth pointing out that neither Biomatrica nor any other company has made the lab freezer obsolete. Muller says Biomatrica has signed up hundreds of customers who are giving the technology a shot, including GlaxoSmithKline, the FBI, and the U.S. Navy.
Muller, a former scientist at The Scripps Research Institute, co-founded the company with his wife, Judy Muller-Cohn in 2005. She’s the CEO, overseeing the finance and operations side of the business, while he manages the scientific side.
Here’s how the technology is supposed to work: Biomatrica’s technology is built on a complex, ancient natural phenomenon called anhydrobiosis, which means “life without water.” It’s a process some organisms use to survive in a dormant state during drought conditions, protecting DNA and RNA from degradation. The Biomatrica products essentially shrink-wrap the sample to put it in this preserved state, Muller says. When the researcher wants to test the sample, instead of going to the freezer to thaw it out, he or she “just adds water,” to bring it back to a usable state, Muller says.
At least one obvious barrier needs to be cleared before this will really catch on. Scientists will need to be assured that Biomatrica’s technology really preserves a sample as reliably as a freezer, and doesn’t introduce some new variable in their experiments that might skew results. The company also needs to make a compelling argument that this approach really saves money and electricity.
Biomatrica has been working to answer those questions, most recently with a study with academic collaborators, Muller says. The researchers have found that a single freezer produces about the same carbon emissions as 4.5 cars per year, Muller says. Spread over 10-year period, this can add up to millions of dollars spent on electricity bills to keep samples cold at some big institutions, he says. In contrast, Muller says, it costs about 35 to 45 cents per sample to use the Biomatrica system.
Of course, Biomatrica isn’t the only company that is trying to find ways to get biologists to store samples at room temperature. Whatman, a New Jersey-based division of GE Healthcare, has a different approach, as does Carlsbad, CA-based GenVault.
Muller didn’t want to get into specifics about how much of the market his company has already penetrated, although it’s obvious that very little of the market has been tapped so far. Even in the downturn, he’s extremely bullish about the prospects that this product is gaining momentum. “I want to at least double again this year,” Muller says.
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