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PROcellcare – a cell nanny enters the market

The idea and the first laboratory device were developed in Heidelberg at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), one of the world’s top-class research institutions, before being turned into a product by the Heiligkreuzsteinach-based company PROdesign. PROcellcare – a fully automated cell analysis and feeding system that can be integrated into a microscope – is an impressive demonstration that innovation very much depends on the right partners working together.

A good idea is the best source of new products, it’s as simple as that. However, experience shows that many good ideas cannot be successfully turned into marketable commodities, even when the initial products have been shown to work in principle. Dr. Armin Sulzmann, Managing Director of PROdesign and product development and innovation specialist, knows the reasons why excellent ideas can fail, even when they have been shown to work in the laboratory. “Laboratory and market are two completely different worlds. It is not enough to be able to show once or twice that something works. The market adheres to completely different rules,” said Sulzmann referring to issues such as certification, marketing, design, ergonomics, safety and reliability.

Automation for cell analyses

Innovation from Heidelberg: PROcellcare exchanges cell culture media and adds test substances fully automatically. © BIOPRO/Bächtle

A new device called PROcellcare shows that the transfer from laboratory to market is possible when the key things are done correctly. The device was developed by two resourceful individuals at EMBL and was turned into a product thanks to a successful cooperation between EMBL's technology transfer agency, EMBLEM, EMBL and PROdesign.

The system supplies live cells under the microscope with nutrients, removes used media and dispenses working solutions such as pharmaceutical drug candidates, salt solutions or potential toxins into the small wells of cell culture plates. If necessary, the range of functions of PROcellcare can be expanded. When it is attached to an image processing system, PROcellcare is able to assess and analyse the state of cells, and control the dispensing unit accordingly. This is made possible by using fluorescent dyes to highly specifically stain cells, cell components, organelles and molecules.

Dr. Jürgen Bauer, business development expert at EMBLEM, reports on the development: "Siegfried Winkler and Dr. Christian Conrad developed the system for use by EMBL scientists. Something that is very special about the system is that despite the high technical requirements, it can nevertheless be operated in a very small space. The only requirement is that the pipetting unit fits between the microscope lens and the microscope stage.

Convinced about the own idea

Despite the technological challenge, the question arises as to why a system that is able to fully automatically, precisely and reliably dose, pipette and analyse, had not been developed much earlier. “We have talked with many people, including big microscope manufacturers. The majority of them considered such a development to be too time-consuming and costly,” explains Bauer. However, the EMBL developers pursued their idea and turned it into a laboratory device before reaching the point where they were faced with the challenge of turning the pilot device into a marketable product.

Turning laboratory devices into marketable products is one of the areas PROdesign specialises in. PROdesign supports other companies and research institutions in the process of turning good ideas into marketable products. Technology transfer and product development are the company’s major business areas. Based in Heiligkreuzsteinach, around 15km from Heidelberg, PROdesign has a great deal of experience in medical and device technology, laboratory automation and analytics. And now it is putting its skills to good use in the biotechnology market.

“Proof of concept“ is not enough

Michael Lülf (left) and Dr. Armin Sulzmann - Managing Directors PROdesign © BIOPRO/Bächtle

PROdesign's innovation experts differentiate between two phases, each consisting of several stages. "The process begins with the idea development phase. The idea is then turned into a concept, and the first patents are filed. At some stage, once many optimisation steps have been carried out, the developers are ready to build a laboratory device," explained Sulzmann. The resulting prototype is the "proof of concept", where the developers show that the device and the underlying technology actually work as expected.

"This phase is typical for research institutions, universities and their technology transfer agencies," explains Michael Lülf, managing director at PROdesign and in charge of technology development. The second phase consists of carrying out all the work necessary for launching the new product. "This phase is referred to as industrialisation," said Lülf going on to add "research institutions and their technology transfer units require suitable industry partners in order to be able to carry out this phase."

During the industrialisation process, it is decided whether the new technical solution is likely to be economically successful. Concept series, pilot series devices and prototypes are used to bring the initial laboratory device closer to market. During this phase, the developers also focus on issues relating to manufacture, design, selection of parts and suppliers. PROdesign even goes a step further: "We also carry out a comprehensive market analysis. Based on the idea and the laboratory devices, we evaluate the market to get an idea as to how the market will potentially develop," explains Sulzmann.

Discussed, agreed and implemented

In the case of the cell feeding and analysis system from Heidelberg, which at the industrialisation stage of development did not yet have a name, Sulzmann, Lülf and their team expected the device to have quite good market opportunities. They decided to develop the idea and the initial laboratory device further. “Feeding cells, bringing them into contact with test substances, exchanging media – all these are standard processes that are currently done manually in the laboratory,” said Sulzmann referring to the particular benefit of the new system.

In February 2009, the PROdesign managing directors met with Bauer and his colleagues from EMBLEM for the first time. Market research studies were done and, two months later, these studies provided the partners with the data they needed to be able to make further decisions. Industrialisation was started and the first three series-production models were installed at EMBL in Heidelberg in November 2009.

Shortcuts and more partners

Bauer is very positive about the cooperation: PROdesign was very strong in terms of engineering." For Bauer, both the professional aspect and the geographical aspect of the cooperation were hugely important. "EMBL is a very successful international research organisation. Nevertheless there are challenges where the solution is easier to find when the cooperation partners are located in close geographic vicinity to each other, speak the same language and have the same cultural background. And this was the case when we developed PROcellcare."

PROdesign and EMBLEM now need to get additional partners on board in order to successfully enter the market. They see big microscope manufacturers as the best partners as they have the necessary contacts and distribution pathways. And in addition, working in cooperation with microscope manufacturers is indispensable in order for the system to be integrated into standard microscopes.

A huge challenge: looking for and finding partners

EMBLEM expert Dr. Jürgen Bauer: "It is difficult to find suitable partners." © EMBLEM

The project is going very much in the right direction. But this has not always been the case. Bauer clearly recalls the beginning of the project when EMBLEM was looking for a cooperation partner: "It is really rather difficult to find a suitable partner, because any partner has to fulfil certain requirements." Developmental processes are always time-consuming and costly; the company needs to have specialists on board and needs to be able to make investments. A particular benefit is the company's experience in working with academic institutions. "In general, we always found that the partners we chose did not fulfil one requirement or another. Either the required specialists were not available, or we lacked the willingness to invest or the necessary experience," said Bauer.

The big players in this particular industry have their priorities in other areas. They are mainly focused on their core business. Only when a product has reached market maturity and can be integrated, are such companies willing to enter the business. "We have seen exactly how this works with PROcellcare," said Bauer going on to add "now that the device is ready, PROdesign has had some positive contact with big manufacturers. And this is entirely down to the fact that the device is certified and can be integrated relatively easily into the business of microscope manufacturers."

Innovation traps

PROcellcare can be integrated into commercial microscopes. © BIOPRO/Bächtle

Conditions like these are very problematic for the innovation climate - at least where innovations made by small companies or research institutions are concerned. This is where ideas, concepts, models and the first devices are developed. Without the support of specialists who analyse the market, turn a development into a product and launch it, excellent ideas often run the risk of falling into oblivion.

Money is another major factor. Huge amounts of money are required to develop a product, carry out market research, obtain certifications, implement marketing and sales and start production. "Depending on the product, the cost of market research and industrialisation can amount to between 250,000 to 2.5 million euros," said Sulzmann.

Start-up companies usually do not have enough money as their budget is mainly directed towards research and development. Numerous funding programmes are available for the early phases of company and product development, providing young companies with the financial means to devise, test and develop their ideas. Once a technical development nears industrialisation, very few funding programmes are available to support companies in this phase of product development. In the case of PROcellcare, PROdesign provides the main financing for product development and its market introduction. PROcellcare is a PROdesign brand, a licensing agreement was signed with EMBLEM and the renowned EMBL acts as reference client.

Sulzmann knows from experience that new developments only have a small chance of survival: "80 per cent of the initial laboratory systems do not make it to the market because big companies have similar solutions up their sleeve and are not interested in turning somebody else's development into a product, even though the system might be better than their own." It looks like the fully automated cell nanny from Heidelberg will be spared this fate.

PROcellcare at Biotechnica 2010:

If you would like to find out more about PROcellcare, you are welcome to visit the joint Baden-Württemberg booth (booth E 41) in hall 9, where you will also find the booths of EMBLEM (D 43) and PROdesign (D 44).

Further information:

EMBLEM Technology Transfer GmbH
Dr. Jürgen Bauer
Boxbergring 107
69126 Heidelberg
Tel.: +49 6221/363-2210
E-Mail: bauer(at)embl-em.de

PROdesign
Gesellschaft für Produktentwicklung mbH
Dr. Armin Sulzmann (Managing Director)
Im Neuenacker 4
69253 Heiligkreuzsteinach (Vorderheubach, Industrial Estate)
Tel.: +49 6220/92 444 - 26
E-mail: armin.sulzmann(at)prodesign-entwickung.de

 

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/procellcare-a-cell-nanny-enters-the-market