Microcosm Inc. hopes to shine with fluorescence technology

Columbia firm banking on NIH government grant to move into biosciences

Small business

October 14, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Microcosm Inc. is hoping to make the world a brighter place - the world of molecules, at least.

The Columbia-based technology company builds micro-imaging instruments and services heavy-duty microscopes for scientists engaged in seeking out the smallest of all molecules.

But the 9-year-old company, which has always relied on government contracts, is hoping to step into the realm of bioscience with a new grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The two-year, $400,000 grant, awarded last month, will allow Microcosm to further develop a technology to brighten fluorophores - the radiant material scientists use to tag molecules, identify chemical reactions and measure the quantity of specific particles.

Dr. Wayne E. Moore, Microcosm's founder and president, said that if researchers are able to clear some preliminary hurdles with the technology - called nano-metal enhanced fluorescence - his company could be in position to help manufacturers of several devices that use fluorescence, from light bulbs to home pregnancy tests to anthrax detectors.

"Strategically, we want to be a product-based company," Moore said. "We're in the process of doing the very first work that says which applications make the most sense. We'll have answers to those [pertinent] questions within months."

But one analyst said there are a lot of companies working in that arena - all of them small -and the biggest hurdle they all face is marketing and penetrating the market.

Still, companies that manufacture fluorescent probes are looking for developments in their field, said Aaron Geist, vice president of research for Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. investment firm.

"Any improvement in probe-based technology would be something the market would embrace," he said.

"The greatest demand would be for new and enabling fluorescent probes to detect things you couldn't detect before."

Helping scientists detect the previously undetectable is part of what the nano-metal fluorescence would, in theory, do because it would help existing fluorescent materials work better.

The technology places an incredibly tiny piece of metal - so small that 5,000 of them could fit on the tip of a human hair - a certain distance away from fluorescent material.

When light shines on the material, the tiny bits of metal increase the amount of light the fluorescent materials create.

In theory, Moore said, the nano-particles can increase fluorescence by 10 million times, but Moore said his scientists have routinely seen fluorescence increase by 200 times in their laboratory.

That is a marked improvement, he said. "For most of these scientists, a factor of five would be enough," Moore said. "It can make a huge difference in the bottom line of a lot of biotech companies."

It would also make a difference in Microcosm's bottom line.

Microcosm has grown tremendously as a developer of software and instrumentation for micro-imaging.

The company, which had revenue of about $3.1 million last year, has landed on the Deloitte and Touche Technology Fast 50 list each year from 1999 to 2001.

But as government spending has turned more toward homeland defense than research, revenue has dropped this year. Moore said he expects between $2 million and $3 million in revenue for 2002.

Moore estimated the company is about $5 million and three years shy of producing a product from the technology-too far away even to decide whether to target biosciences or light bulbs first.

No matter which market, Microcosm would seek partnerships with larger companies that are working in the areas where the technology could be applied.

Microcosm also has applied for other grants through the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy, to underwrite research on some chief concerns about the technology.

The concerns include whether the tiny particles can amplify the fluorophores without illuminating the nearby unimportant material or "noise," and whether the particles can be treated to concentrate near the fluorophores that are seeking out specific chemicals or molecules.

If the company is successful, it could be good news to manufacturers using fluorescence and to researchers, affecting the quality of research a scientist is able to do and the cost of research, said Dr. Kastooriranganathan Ramakrishnan, senior scientific director of Nichols Institute Diagnostics, a subsidiary of Quest Diagnostics, which manufactures laboratory test kits.

"Researchers are always looking for brighter signals," he said.

"You [can] have better discrimination of analytical results. From a cost point of view, if you can avoid the amplification step [in research] before you carry out a test, it saves the cost incurred in that step. Many of these amplification processes involve royalty fees."

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