New era dawns for cell research?
All the stars were aligned when TUT and UTA pooled their expertise in life sciences to generate new international business. The portable hypoxia device that has been recently brought to market will not only cut costs but also improve the reliability of, for example, cancer research.
Joose Kreutzer and the portable hypoxia device that enables prolonged microscopic imaging of cells under hypoxic conditions.
“Our device is small and portable and intended for culturing cells under hypoxic, or low-oxygen, conditions that mimic the environment where cancer cells live inside the human body,” says Professor Pasi Kallio.
As conventional hypoxic chambers are cumbersome and expensive, cancer cells are often studied under unideal aerobic conditions. In addition, it has thus far not been possible to reliably examine the effects of radiation therapy on cells in a hypoxic environment. Now it is.
“This new technology can be used in studies where cells are radiated, imaged and measured under physoxic conditions similar to the human body. It also increases the reliability of research conducted on cancer mechanisms and on the response of tumour cells to drug combinations,” says Kallio.
Besides cancer research, the new technology holds promise to accelerate research, for example, on stem cells and cerebral and myocardial infarctions. It will also help reduce the number of animals used in scientific experiments.
Funding for research, funding for commercialisation
The efforts to develop this new type of laboratory technology started in 2011 with the establishment of the Human Spare Parts Programme at the BioMediTech Institute (BMT), which is jointly administered by the University of Tampere and Tampere University of Technology. Long-term funding was provided by the EU, Business Finland (formerly the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation Tekes), the Academy of Finland and the Council of Tampere Region.
A few years later, the team led by Professor Pasi Kallio secured a grant from Tekes under its ‘New business from Research Ideas Programme’ (TUTLI). This funding was devoted to exploring the commercial potential of the portable hypoxia device.
The commercialisation process received a further boost, when the City of Tampere decided to fund the SOLAB project and granted the project Tampere3 Innovation Funding in 2016.
“The project was selected for this funding by representatives of the City of Tampere and the region’s industry and business. They placed special emphasis on the potential of the innovation to generate new business opportunities in and around Tampere,” says Harri Länsipuro, Head of Innovation Services at TUT.
Partner ensures access to a worldwide distribution network
The portable hypoxia device contains six single-use cell culture chambers. It retains both heat and gas, and users create the conditions for optimal cell growth by filling the chamber with a select mixture of gases.
After the clear commercial potential of the innovation had been demonstrated, it was time to make a string of decisions.
“We could have licensed the technology or sold it to a foreign buyer. Instead, we chose to establish BioGenium Microsystems Ltd in Tampere. Now the company has three employees as well as independent subcontractors working for the company,” says Kallio.
The newly launched spinoff found a partner in the US-based Baker Company. Negotiations were conducted with Baker’s British branch Baker Ruskinn, which is a global leader in mimicked physiological culture environments. The Baker Company maintains a global distribution and sales network that is a valuable asset for the new spinoff. The new device has attracted widespread interest among Baker’s customers and has been recently launched under the trademark OxyGenie.
“Partnering with leading international companies is crucially important if Finnish university spinoffs are to break into the global market,” says BMT's Programme Manager Juho Väisänen.
How far and fast the technology invented and developed in Tampere spreads around the world is ultimately up to the researchers working in the lab. Nevertheless, the market potential of the new technology is vast.
“Basically all research on cells, with the exception of skin cells, should be conducted under low-oxygen or physoxic conditions,” says Kallio.
How does one turn research into business?
According to Kallio, it is possible, albeit challenging, to combine technology with cell biology as long as everyone involved is committed to the common goals. The shift from an academic mindset to a business one is even more of a challenge.
“The transition from research to business does not occur on its own, nor in an academic vacuum. Our sparring partners were BMT's team and TUT's Innovation Services. They provided invaluable and readily available support throughout the commercialisation process,” says Kallio.
Still, organisational structures and services cannot turn researchers into entrepreneurs. It is only after researchers discover their entrepreneurial passion and take charge of the process that things fall into place.
For years to come, the expertise accumulated during the Human Spare Parts Programme will continue to pave the way for new business, improved treatments and more effective research methods. For BioGenium Microsystems, this means that the company's story continues as an expert organisation.
“The portable hypoxia device and the related single-use components are our first products but I’m confident that there is more to come,” says Joose Kreutzer, CEO of BioGenium Microsystems. Co-founders Olli Tanhuanpää, Krista Rantanen and Pasi Kallio are in full agreement.