The images of living cells that Venneos GmbH delivers are quite different from those captured by light microscopes. This is because the company, which was established in 2014, uses semi-conductors rather than optical lenses, thus opening up entirely new ways to analyse cells.
The Venneos GmbH team has developed a silicon chip-based imaging system for cell analysis. This technology is now being marketed as an easy-to-handle mobile device. It has several advantages compared with traditional imaging methods, including the ability to perform cell imaging without fluorescent or other labelling; it is non-invasive and thousands of cells can be analysed simultaneously and automatically over a period of days or weeks. The device is also easy to use - it is simply placed in a commercially available incubator and connected to a power supply. David Wehner, a business administration and biotechnology graduate and one of the four company founders, explains the functional principle of the novel imaging method: "There are around 100,000 sensor pixel measuring units, so-called field-effect transistors, below the glass surface of the chip. They are the hexagonal structures you can see on the chip. A cell that adheres to the chip surface generates voltage fluctuations detectable by the transistors. This new measurement approach can be used to detect all kinds of adherent cells. "The creation of signals depends on whether or not individual sensor pixels are covered by a cell. Each individual sensor pixel is considerably smaller than a cell, which results in a pixel pattern and hence an image of the cell.
Venneos' technology can be used to analyse individual cells. Wehner is convinced that the technology is suitable for many cell-based assays, and can provide information about the migratory behaviour of cells and their death or survival. The technology can also be used for determining cell vitality. According to Wehner, wound-healing assays, which are used to investigate the process of wound healing, are one of the method's many possible applications. These assays allow researchers to study how a wound closes as a result of cell migration, cell proliferation and the influence of external factors. Venneos' technology delivers vivid representations along with quantitative analyses of cell migration and hence the wound-healing process. The company believes that cell-based assays have huge market potential in the development of pharmaceutically active drug ingredients and the field of tumour biology. "We are already in contact with potential partners active in preclinical drug development," says Wehner.
The team at Venneos are able to deal with special customer requests because they are developing the system's analysis and visualisation software themselves. All hardware, including the chip and measurement device, is also a proprietary development. "We are specifically focused on developing a system that is easy to operate and we're working on making the technology and the device less complex so that the user is unaware of the complexity behind them," says Wehner. The devices are approximately A5 in size and a few centimetres in height. However, the team make further improvements. At some stage in the future, they hope to be able to develop a device variant that can be easily connected to a smartphone and used in other areas. The culture chamber prototypes – also a proprietary development– are currently produced from a biocompatible plastic using 3D printers. Later, when the culture chambers are produced in larger quantities, they will be manufactured using injection moulding.
Wehner believes that the price of standard devices will be in the five-digit euro range. "Right now, we are particularly interested in bringing the equipment to market for wide applicability. Our aim is to achieve broad acceptance. Later, we might also offer the analyses as a service. At the moment, however, we're concentrating on the manufacture, sale and further development of the devices," says Wehner pointing out that the company is involved in commercial activities as well as scientific research. "We will always be part of the scientific community and we're currently members of an EU-funded research network, amongst other things. Basically, our overall objective is to connect the inanimate silicon world with the animate biological world, and use this as the basis for the creation of an innovative company," says Wehner. The young company is seeking to recruit competent staff who would like to play a part in shaping this new future, and, as such, welcomes speculative applications from specialists in the fields of biology, physics, electrical engineering and computer science.
Venneos already caused quite a stir in the start-up community when it was one of the winners of the Science4Life Venture Cup in spring/summer 2015, in both the concept and business plan phase categories. The competition was run by the Science4Life start-up initiative, itself an initiative of the Hessian state government and Sanofi, the healthcare company.