Automated solutions for research and development have to fulfil special requirements; rather than being directed towards mass production, they need to be able to handle highly complex processes and minute amounts of sample. HB Technologies AG specifically focuses on this market, offering engineering services and products for use in the field of biotechnology.
Dr. Steffen Hüttner’s focus is not on the classical objectives of automation. He is the CEO of Tübingen-based HB Technologies AG and offers automation solutions for life sciences laboratories, amongst other clients. In this highly specialised market sector, automation is not aimed at increasing throughput and reducing costs, but on transferring complex activities into automated processes. “We deal with completely different dimensions from the consumer goods industry and our primary objective is to deliver accurate and reproducible results,” said Hüttner.
HB Technologies uses a two-fold approach to an automated future consisting firstly of engineering and software solutions for industrial research laboratories. For HB Technologies, the term “engineering solutions” always involves software. Hüttner explains why: “The development of laboratory devices is closely related to software development; both are inextricably linked with one another.” HB developments are for example used to connect existing devices to one another in order to make laboratory processes better, quicker and more transparent. “If a device does not have a suitable interface for doing this, we develop software that is able to handle it,” Hüttner added.
In addition to developing solutions for individual devices, HB Technologies also specialises in comprehensive developments for the entire process and system control of industrial laboratory applications, including complete workflow management solutions. Robert Bosch GmbH is one of HB’s most important cooperation partners in this area. HB develops software solutions for high-throughput devices used for automated analyses (e.g. high-throughput screening), to name but one example of software used for production processes.
HB Technologies’ second area of activity involves its subsidiary INTAVIS AG in Cologne, which develops and produces proprietary laboratory devices, including peptide synthesisers and in situ hybridisation devices for the detection of RNA. Special devices that enable the preparation of samples for use in mass spectrometric analyses complement the company’s product portfolio. INTAVIS also uses the laboratory devices for the provision of laboratory consumables, e.g. it uses the automated peptide synthesis devices to produce customised peptides for its clients. “We are currently mainly servicing R&D laboratories,” said Hüttner.
Having these two business areas within one company has a major advantage: “We not only put our engineering and IT know-how to good use for client services, but also for developing proprietary devices and biotech products that are produced and marketed by INTAVIS. We therefore know the requirements and critical interfaces from our own experience, and this benefits our customers,” said Hüttner. The company’s well-adapted service and product portfolio did not appear overnight: HB Technologies AG was founded as Hölle & Hüttner in 1992 and initially focussed on bioinformatics and engineering services and also carried out own research projects from a very early stage in company development. HB Technologies still continues this tradition and is involved in numerous R&D projects funded by the German and Baden-Württemberg governments. In 2008, HB Technologies acquired INTAVIS Bioanalytical Instruments AG whose product portfolio, including peptide synthesis systems, has since been developed further to meet state-of-the-art life sciences requirements.
An important success factor for the company’s proprietary product pipeline is the use of so-called TRIZ1 methods of innovation that are currently also being introduced in all INTAVIS business areas. “We assess the entire development of a product with a method based on TRIZ, the theory of inventive problem solving,” said Hüttner. The method is not always applied to complete devices; HB Technologies also applies a modular system whose different components can be combined depending on the issue that needs to be solved. Individual elements are either purchased or developed in-house, depending on which approach delivers the best and most economically viable solution. This said, HB Technologies has an own robotic platform and products are largely designed by the company itself.
“The magic of this approach is that the individual components are combined in a sensible way,” said Hüttner explaining that this relates both to economic feasibility as well to product functionality. “HB Technologies is therefore able to provide its clients with automated devices that cost considerably less than those sold by typical equipment manufacturers.” Hüttner and his team use the systematic TRIZ methodology for generating new ideas and solutions within the company as well as for client orders. For example, the company analyses the existing functionality of automated processes in order to find out which elements need to be replaced in order to make the entire process more cost-efficient.
Using this approach, HB Technologies can offer its clients an optimised value creation chain for automated laboratory work from which they can select individual modules, specific segments or the entire chain. “This has not yet become standard in the work processes used by life sciences companies of our size. We thus have a pipeline similar to that which exists in the pharmaceutical industry,” said Hüttner.
In the medium- and long term, HB Technologies has plans to considerably expand its existing product pipeline. The company has clients in Baden-Württemberg, Germany and around the world. “Around 70 percent of INTAVIS products are sold to customers abroad, in particular in the USA and Asia, which is why we have distributors in all these locations. The regional market is a particularly important one for us in the field of engineering. The proximity to our customers is very important for us, and we will therefore in future also specifically focus on the regional market,” said Hüttner.
Hüttner also has plans to increasingly become involved in bioinformatics services, an area which remains undersupplied in the life sciences sector. In order to accelerate the process of entering this particular market and present solutions for commercial as well as purely scientific applications, HB Technologies has recently signed a deal with the English workflow specialist Eagle Genomics.
1 TRIZ: The Russian accronym for the "Theory of Inventive Problem Solving".