The spin-out company Scandinavian Micro Biodevices
has completed its journey from the clean rooms at DTU to a global breakthrough. Zoetis, of USA, has just paid DKK 536 million (EUR 72 million) for the company.
For 20 years, people have talked about letting disposable analyses replace traditional blood sampling, where you have to wait a long time for the answer. Scandinavian Micro Biodevices (SMB), based in Farum, Denmark, has now had an international breakthrough with its lab-on-a-chip technology, that helps veterinarians make a number of the most important diagnoses for dogs, cats and horses. The company has just been acquired by one of the world's largest suppliers of veterinary medications and healthcare solutions—Zoetis of USA—but will remain in Farum.
“We have already gained a strong foothold in USA and in several European markets. With the capital Zoetis is injecting, and their global sales channels, we can take the last important step towards a global presence,” says Ole Kring, CEO of SMB.
The global market for veterinary products is about DKK 30 billion, and it is growing by around 8 per cent a year.
Innovation speed is vital
SMB's technology has two levels. One is the device that reads the chip. The other is the chip itself. There are many different chips, depending on the animal species you want to investigate and what disease indicator you are interested in.
The compartments in the chip are very narrow. This is necessary in order to control how the blood and fluid move. It is also necessary so that you can make do with a small amount of blood. In fact, 10 microlitres of blood is enough. However, the disadvantage is that it can be difficult to achieve the desired mixing between blood from the sample and a given reactant in the chip.
"Many aspects of microfluidic systems are counterintuitive," explains Niels Kristian Bau-Madsen, who is head of production at SMB. "When you cannot rely on intuition, you usually resort to simulation. We perform many simulations, but some aspects are so complex that the calculation can take a week, even using a powerful computer. That means it's faster simply to produce the component and pour on some green and red liquid and see how they mix."
"Veterinary medicine is far more accessible in terms of approvals etc. than human medicine. There has also been steady growth in veterinary products for a long time, and the signs suggest this will continue."
Ole King, CEO of SMB
The Farum-based company's record is 24 hours from the 3D design of a component to 1,000 finished components ready for testing.
“It has always been very important for us to be able to quickly produce real components, first at DTU and later in our own clean room," says Niels Kristian Bau-Madsen.
Forced to focus on animals—fortunately
Another question comes to mind. Why did SMB decide to focus on veterinary products? Why not labs-on-a-chip for people?
The explanation can be found in the company's infancy. In 2006, US owners, Alere (see box) wanted the Danish employees to move to Scotland, but that wasn't well received in Farum. Instead, they reached an agreement, whereby SMB's main activity—development of labs-on-a-chip for the health sector—would move to Scotland. The Danish employees who did not transfer could instead buy their workplace and continue on, but had to refrain from developing products for humans.
“This has since proved to be very fortunate. Veterinary medicine is far more accessible in terms of approvals etc. than human medicine. There has also been steady growth in veterinary products for a long time, and the signs suggest this will continue,” says Ole Kring.
“I'm not only referring to the fact that the growing global middle class values pets, but also the fact that demand for meat will continue to grow. We started with pets, but plan to gradually enter the market for tests for production animals.”
In addition to tests for new animal species, SMB has great potential for adding to the number of diseases the various species can be tested for.
SMB was born from the crisis which hit the global IT industry immediately after the turn of the millennium.
At the time, Ole Kring was head of the NKT Group's subsidiary, NKT Innovation, which had fostered a number of Danish information and communication technology and photonics companies.
NKT's management realized that it would be too expensive to keep NKT Innovation running under the new market conditions. The company was therefore closed. The photonics activities were gathered in the division which is NKT Photonics today, while other activities were discontinued or sold off.
SMB was sold to the US company, Inverness Medical (called Alere today). The Microelectronics Centre—a major DTU initiative—had been inaugurated a few years earlier. This is now called DTU Nanotech. There was a clean room at the centre, where components could be manufactured on a micron scale in a clean and dust-free environment. This is now called DTU Danchip.
“It was good for us to be located in an environment where people were doing research and development with microelectronics,” says Ole Kring.