Amnis Rolls Out Souped Up Scientific Tool, Just as Customers Start Feeling Flush

Xconomy Seattle — 

Seattle-based Amnis spun out of the University of Washington a decade ago, fired up about developing a new type of sophisticated imaging instrument with potential to enable all kinds of cool experiments in the lab. Yet it never really caught on in a big way, and nobody has yet published a groundbreaking paper in Nature or Science based on showing things only it can do.

Yet oddly enough, in an economic downturn, this could be Amnis’s breakout year. I gathered some interesting insights from CEO David Basiji about how Amnis has souped up its technology, right when its customers suddenly have more money to spend.

Amnis has been selling a tool since 2005 that’s sort of a cross between a traditional laboratory microscope for looking at cells, and a standard machine for counting and cataloging large numbers of cells—what’s known as a flow cytometer. Microscopes are great for providing detailed images, but they are slow, and are limited by what human eyes can see. Flow cytometers are good at giving quantitative cell counts in a sample—like the amount of CD4 or CD8 cells in the blood that signify HIV infection—but they don’t provide images that can provide subtle insights into variation of cells. They can’t tell you critical information about whether a protein target of cancer drugs, like VEGF, is in the cell body or on the surface, where a drug is more likely to hit it.

Tools to give researchers these finely-tuned insights aren’t cheap, and they make up a big market. The market for microscopes approaches $2 billion a year, led by major optics players like Zeiss, Nikon, and Olympus. Flow cytometers generate about $1 billion a year in sales, led by Becton Dickinson and Beckman Coulter. So far, little Seattle-based Amnis, with 33 employees, has carved out a tiny niche, generating $6 million last year for its tool that aspires to offer the best features of both, Basiji says.

Last month, Amnis rolled out a new second-generation product, called ImageStreamX, that it hopes will grab a much bigger share of the market. It’s 10 times faster than the older one, and with a starting price of $200,000—down from $285,000 for the older one. This new product rollout happens to coincide as researchers are scrambling to spend money fast as part of the $10 billion federal stimulus that’s flowing to the National Institutes of Health. Suddenly, Amnis has built up a backlog of 20 orders for its new machine. For a tool that starts at $200,000 and can run up to $500,000 with added features, that can add up to real money in a hurry.

“Before, our sales people used to have to do a lot of education about our product. Now we really have people coming to us,” Basiji says.

The first-generation product essentially created some interest in the Amnis technology, helping it build up a database of sales leads that runs 4,700 names deep, Basiji says. By coming out with the higher-speed, lower cost version, many people with some basic familiarity with Amnis “are definitely giving us a second look,” Basiji says.

Amnis has signed up customers from some big-name institutions, like the National Institutes of Health, the Pasteur Institute in France, the University of Heidelberg, as well as major drugmakers like GlaxoSmithKline, Roche, and Amgen.

I pressed Basiji on what kinds of experiments the new product enables biologists to do that they otherwise can’t. One thing the Amnis tool can do is detect tiny numbers of cells, or slight variations in cells, that would otherwise go unnoticed in a sample, at a rate of 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 10,000, Basiji says. For certain kinds of leukemia, for example, existing tools that aren’t this sensitive can often erroneously declare a patient to be cancer-free. Researchers who can spot these trace amounts of cancer in a blood sample can use that information to persist with a chemotherapy regimen until it’s really finished the job. Or, even better, they can catch cancer at its earliest, and most treatable stage.

How this translates into improved revenue and profits for Amnis is still a bit unclear. Amnis has had intermittently profitable quarters, although it expects 2009 will be its first full year of running in the black, Basiji says. The NIH stimulus money isn’t expected to start flowing to academic labs until September or October, and Amnis is still just shipping a beta version of ImageStreamX, so a lot will depend on how good the early customer reviews are.

But the feedback from customers so far has been encouraging, Basiji says. This new tool can analyze eight to 10 markers on cells at once, take images to show where those markers are on the cell, and process 1,000 cells a second. This is fast enough to keep up with the standard flow cytometers. That’s critically important to customers, Basiji says. Nobody bought the original product to replace a standard flow cytometer, but now the company is hearing feedback from customers saying they are considering that, he says.

“It’s really a turning point for us this year,” Basiji says. “There’s never been a better time to sell a more compelling, lower-priced product than in today’s market.”

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