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From Conception to Product: How Instrumentation Companies Connect with Bench Scientists

by Marie-Cécilia Duvernoy, PhD | June 27, 2019

Any scientist who has spent time at the bench of a biology laboratory knows that protocols can be long, repetitive and complex. With innovative research and discoveries constantly demanding higher throughput and better resolution, some companies are developing hands-free instruments to support scientists. Using a combination of automation, micromanipulation and complex engineering, these companies harvest skills that are not in the usual toolbox of standard biologists to enable them to focus on their science. How do these companies decide what products to develop to meet the bench scientists’ needs? How do they then reach out to potential new customers that may be resigned to tedious workflows and not necessarily looking out for alternatives? Companies as diverse as Bio-Techne, Berkeley Lights and Miroculus are tackling these issues head on, with strikingly similar communication strategies.

How Are These Companies Making Science Easier?

Needless to say, a viable product has to offer a significant improvement over available methods. The ideal new candidate on the market would perform your experiments faster, offer a higher throughput, provide better resolution and require little to no human intervention. If it also cuts down reagents and consumables, without being too expensive itself, it is a sure hit! Of course, it is challenging to come up with a single instrument that innovates on all fronts, but most of the products on the market feature at least one if not a combination of these characteristics. For instance, scaling processes down to run on microfluidic systems usually results in an increased throughput for applications spanning from sequencing in the case of 10x Genomics or Mission Bio, to cell phenotyping for Berkeley Lights.

Sometimes, the innovation does not lie in the fact that the experiment can be done at all. Instead, the level of convenience and efficiency a product provides is the game changer. The C1 system of Fluidigm or the Chromium controller of 10x Genomics are not the only approach to achieve single-cell RNA sequencing, but they make the process largely easier and higher throughput than custom methods which are limited by the challenge of handling single cells. Similarly, ProteinSimple did not invent ELISA but offers a hands-free instrument to perform the assay in a faster, more sensitive fashion.

When academic researchers discover new techniques, they do not necessarily have a strong incentive, nor the resources, and sometimes expertise, to make these techniques more efficient or versatile. Developing the technology into a well-characterized and user-friendly tool is a job in itself, often undertaken by a private company. By popularizing novel complex techniques, instrumentation companies accelerate science and spark innovation, provided that their potential customers know about the commercially available tools. But the fact that there might already be a way to perform the experiment does not encourage scientists to seek alternatives. Therefore, instrumentation companies have to deploy an ensemble of strategies to make their products visible on the market and reach out to scientists who may need their instruments.

Demo Booths at Shows and Conferences

The easiest marketing strategy is of course to present the product to a crowd of potential customers. Certainly, instrumentation companies are no exception and display their products at international and local shows. The Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening or the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering feature hundreds of companies at their events every year. Besides, instrumentation companies also offer demonstrations at research institutions that are part of their commercial targets. They will attend, and sometimes sponsor, events organized by the research institute, where they will display their latest products and gain visibility. In addition, instrumentation companies also reach out to individual research groups to offer on-site presentations.

Big conferences, like the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting or Advances in Genome Biology and Technology conference, are also common promotional stages. By targeting specific scientific communities that already work with their product, companies use these conferences to gain traction and build awareness. “We go where our customers are” answered Dr. Kelly Gardner, director of marketing at Bio-Techne, when asked how they select the conferences they attend. They usually have a booth to show the product and largely advertise the presentations and posters of their users to showcase their technology at work.

Know Your Customers and Support Their Success

Dr. Gardner also co-founded Zephyrus Biosciences, a startup which arose from her PhD group at the Department of Bioengineering of the University of California, Berkeley. Zephyrus’ goal was to develop and commercialize the first instrument for single-cell Western blotting following a strong interest in the technology published in Nature Methods in 2014.  According to Dr. Gardner, crucial steps to make their product successful were to carefully understand the needs in the current market and work closely with early customers to perfect the instrument and help users be successful with it right away. Taking part in the Lean Launchpad program provided the founders with a framework to speak with over a hundred potential customers and allowed them to gage “who it is that needs your product, what type of person, what type of application,” remembers Dr. Gardner. She also praises a tight relationship with users: “We’ve been working closely with customers since day one and we continue to do that today, even though now we are part of a public company.” Indeed, three years after its creation, Zephyrus got acquired by the Bio-Techne corporation, benefitting from then on from the strong field support teams of the ProteinSimple brand all over America, Europe and Asia to deploy the product. Nonetheless, even during the one and a half year development phase of the Z1 single-cell Western blotting system, Zephyrus made a point in sharing prototypes or mock-data to provide interested scientists “access to the technology and learn from them what’s useful, what’s working and what’s not.”

Dr. Morteza Roodgar, a researcher at Stanford University, had a similar experience as an early user of the Linked-Read technology from 10x Genomics. He recalls getting support from responsive and helpful staff via “phone calls, emails and a couple of times over to the lab”. Even if 10x Genomics was not involved in the scientific development of his new application of their technique, he is confident that the company will promote his future publications. They also invited him to present his work during one of their webinars. These presentations from users or company scientists are common practice for instrumentation companies. They aim to foster a community of users who share data, solutions, and interesting ways to use the products. Berkeley Lights, another Bay Area company, particularly relies on such networking for its promotion. The company sells the Beacon platform, a large and high end instrument that enables massively high-throughput cell manipulation and phenotyping. The instrument’s competitiveness for industrial applications like drug discovery or cell therapy as well as its higher price explains why the company’s clients are mostly biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. New customers mainly hear about the Beacon platform by word of mouth, making it especially critical for the company to convince the interested users that the platform is indeed suited for their specific goals.

The Importance of Academic Collaborations: Advantages and Challenges

Regardless of their stage or product, instrumentation companies make a point in publishing their achievements in academic journals. ProteinSimple indicated they “follow closely [their] customer’s publications and try to promote them in any way that makes sense.” As an independent validation of the product’s performances, these publications help them demonstrate the scientific credibility of their technology. Oftentimes, these publications arise from collaborations with academics which reinforces the confidence in the company’s achievements, especially at early stages. “As a company, you can claim all you want about what your technology can do, but if the community sees scientists from the Broad Institute present something, it is a very different level” commented Adam Lowe on why validation by big institutions speak widely to the community in his field. Lowe is acting chief commercial officer at Miroculus, a startup developing a programmable hands-free benchtop instrument for molecular biology workflows. Finalizing their product for the end of 2019, Miroculus recently released a poster resulting from a collaboration with the Broad Institute, a highly regarded institution when it comes to genomic techniques. Their joint work indicates that the company’s Miro Canvas platform reduces the amount of reagents necessary to prepare next generation sequencing (NGS) libraries by one third. Miroculus issued a press release to announce the findings reported in the poster, providing some visibility to the company before the launch. Such a strategy was successful as an article in Genome Web was published the following month, resulting in other scientists reaching out to the company. During these early-access collaborations, the scientists at the research institute and at the company perform experiments in concert, with a lot of exchanges. Lowe emphasizes how this approach “is not a commercial arrangement [in that the] mutual goal is to hopefully find something interesting.” Miroculus is open to new collaborations and hopes to work with different types of research groups. Lowe states: “We want a mix [of collaborators] between big leading institutions and young Mavericks, not as well-known, but doing interesting and cutting-edge science” to ultimately showcase the full range of their product’s capabilities.

Although academic collaborations give credibility and build awareness in the scientific community, they can sometimes be challenging to establish. The slower pace of academic research is not necessarily in line with the rapid need for progress, in startups and smaller biotechnology companies in particular. For that reason, the efforts of a company to work with academics are not always rewarded. Lowe acknowledged from his own experience at Miroculus and Illumina that “it is hard to have a good collaboration that is productive. Collaborations do not go so well when people get into them without clear expectations and really well aligned end goals.” To still be able to take advantage of the publicity following academic publications, Lowe says that “trying to map out the communications and publication timeline can help get agreement around earlier abstract submissions, to conferences like Advances in Genome Biology and Technology for instance” referring to the poster which came out from Miroculus’ collaboration with the Broad Institute. Lowe emphasizes that sometimes compromises are needed to address everyone’s interests “to get the word out soon and also get that higher impact publication down the road. Those are great to have even if sometimes the technology may have moved on considerably from that point.”

What About Versatility?

One of the main precepts of marketing is to put customers at the center of the promotion process. This axiom is precisely what is achieved when companies showcase the results of actual users through collaborations and a solid customer network. However, despite placing the customer at the center of their communication, one could argue that these hands-free, sometimes black-boxy, instruments may deprive the user of the entire control they originally had on the workflow. Indeed, if you want to modify anything that is not supported by your instrument, you may need to wait until the company implements it, switch products or in the worst case, go back to more custom procedures. Such obstacles are the reasons why some companies make versatility one of their main goals. For instance, the Miro Canvas platform of Miroculus is fully programmable to achieve many molecular biology workflows beyond the NGS library preparation emphasized during their past collaboration. Companies like Transcriptic or Emerald Cloud Lab offer a more extreme version of versatility combined with automation: remote access to fully automated lab spaces. Scientists world-wide can mail samples and program an experiment online. This service enables companies and academics to benefit from versatile automated platforms without having to dedicate time and money to their installation.

Specialized workflows or flexible procedures? The wide range of offers demonstrate that instrumentation companies aim at addressing all the complex aspects of biology bench work. As a lab scientist, your needs and feedback will ultimately dictate what the instrumentation market looks like in the coming years.

Marie-Cécilia Duvernoy, PhD is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and a Science Communication Fellow at Biotech Connection Bay Area