Helixis, Like PC Firms of Old, Putting “Desktop” Genetics Tools on Every Biology Bench

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of hiring a sales force to build relationships with a small group of customers who write big checks. Instead, Helixis is going to sell its machines over the Internet, and use web advertising, webinars, blogs, customer discussion forums, and other types of social media to create buzz.

What’s more, customers won’t have to take any risk shelling out big bucks for an unproven technology they might not like. Helixis is going to ship its units to researchers via UPS, and allow them to kick the tires during a weeklong trial period to see if they really want to buy one, Macemon says.

“Before, you had a 6-9 month sale cycle, and you’d have to ask your department head to sign off, and release the funds,” Macemon says. “Now you try it out, get some comparative data, work with a few external collaborators, and you can get it on your own time frame.”

The strategy depends on customers to write rave reviews on their own. “Your object is to get customer reviews, and when they come, it comes from a credible source and you get listed in scientific papers,” Macemon says.

This low-cost guerrilla marketing strategy was successfully deployed by NanoDrop Technologies, a Wilmington, DE-based maker of small-volume spectrophotometers, which was acquired by Waltham, MA-based Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO) in 2007.

I asked an obvious question—isn’t the company worried that by giving away machines before they are paid for, that some people might never pay? The answer surprised me: “NanoDrop never lost a unit,” Macemon says.

So even though Helixis doesn’t need to build up a sales force, it is growing. The company has about 30 employees, and expects to double in size this year as it manufactures the device in-house. Distribution will be done in the U.S. over the web, and Helixis has relationships in place with 22 different distributors who will sell it to customers in other countries, Macemon says.

This will be a very interesting year to watch Helixis grow, and to see what kind of impact it can have on molecular biology. Back in October, when I wrote about how Helixis had raised about $7.3 million in a $10 million venture round, I quoted from a presentation that Caltech’s Baltimore gave, in which he said, “the idea might be to have on the desktop of every scientist a machine that works as well as the most high-tech machines, but is affordable at the bench level.”

If the company can start delivering on that promise this year, who knows what kind of things researchers will do with the tools.

It’s sort of like if in the average American office, you had a situation where there’s only one computer with an Intel-powered microprocessor, yet “everyone in the office wants to use Google,” Dickinson says.

Now that every office worker has Google at their fingertips, the pace of information discovery has sped up greatly. The same thing could happen for biology if Helixis is right. “We believe that if you have more access to the machine, you’ll use it more,” Dickinson says. Macemon adds: “Being able to do a run on your own every 40 minutes allows people to be more creative.”

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