Sometimes, smaller really is better.
At least that’s the world according to Fluidigm Corp., a privately held developer of microfluidic pump and valve technology for genetic research, including single molecular analysis, biological sample preparation, and protein analysis.
“If you go back 40 years, when the integrated circuit was invented, computers were as big as rooms. Then, [engineers] figured out how to make a switch transistor to put onto a much smaller vacuum tube and put lots of these switches on a chip,” explained Gajus Worthington, president, chief executive and co-founder of Fluidigm. “Flash forward 40 years, and you have the Pentium chip, which is 100 times more powerful than the mainframe.”
Essentially, Fluidigm has done the same thing for the process of fluidics in biology by taking the fundamental “switches” for fluidics – pumps and valves – and putting them on a chip.
“The pumps and valves normally used for fluidics are giant systems that fill rooms, very much like the computers from 40 years ago,” Worthington said. “We implemented a micro-minimization technique to make those systems better, allowing them to do assays in biotechnology that couldn’t be done before today.”
For example, large numbers of assays, or experiments, had to be done to sequence the human genome. Using Fluidigm’s technology, biologists could have miniaturized those processes and simulated them on a chip to figure out exactly what the human genome does.
As such, Fluidigm’s micro-scale chips have the potential to save biologists large amounts of time and money in their experiments. Currently, the product’s only application is in the drug discovery arena, but as it develops, it may be relevant to the drug delivery, diagnostics, chemical and power markets, Worthington said.
To date, the company has signed on several customers, most of whom are big-name pharmaceutical players. As the ink is still drying on some of those contracts, however, Worthington declined to name any names.
That the San Francisco firm has developed a technology with such wide-reaching potential has garnered it more than just a little bit of attention from the venture capital set. The company, which originally set out to raise $20 million to $25 million in a Series C round of financing, recently closed on $34 million, and is expecting at least another $4 million to flow into its coffers by the end of the month.
“We had a lot of investors come to us, and a lot are still calling to see if they can get in,” Worthington said.
Fluidigm also targeted some specific investors, including Lehman Brothers, which led the oversubscribed transaction. First-time backers Euclid SR Partners, U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray and GE Equity also participated, along with follow-on investors Versant Ventures and InterWest Partners.
Euclid Partner Elaine Jones and Lehman Managing Director Hingge Hsu received a pair of Fluidigm board seats as part of the financing.
Hsu was brought on board in part to guide the company to an eventual initial public offering, Worthington said.
For now, Fluidigm plans to focus on generating revenue and immediately shipping its product.
Finally, The Holy Grail
It certainly isn’t rushing to market to beat the competition, though. According to Worthington, no other company has duplicated Fluidigm’s microfluidics technology.
“This is one of the reasons there’s so much interest. No one’s been able to micro-miniaturize microfluidics like we have,” he added. “It’s been a holy grail for quite some time.”
Fluidigm hopes to supplant some of the companies out there that still rely on gargantuan fluidics systems, and perhaps even partner with a “few of the forward-looking ones,” Worthington said.
Founded in 1999, Fluidigm raised a $3 million Series A round in December of that year, and was last in the private equity market a little more than a year ago, when it raised $12 million in a Series B round of financing.
In addition to its San Francisco headquarters, the company also has an office in Longmont, Colo.