Bioequipment firm takes on cell sorter big names

CHAMPAIGN – Until this year, Gary Durack made only devices that improved the effectiveness of cell sorters.

Now he's producing the sorters themselves – and competing with some of the biggest names in the industry.

Durack's company, iCyt (pronounced EYE-sight) Mission Technology, introduced its first cell sorter, the Reflection, last summer.

So far the company has landed or is close to landing 10 commercial contracts, said Tim Hoerr, the company's chief executive officer.

Cell sorters are used by academic, government and independent institutions to sort biological cells. The sorters are big-ticket items, selling for $400,000 to $1 million per unit, Hoerr said.

In years past, cell sorters have generally been used for research purposes. But in years to come, Hoerr said, he believes they'll be used increasingly for diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Today, the big players in the cell-sorting business are BD Biosciences, part of New Jersey-based Becton, Dickinson & Co.; Beckman Coulter, based in Fullerton, Calif.; and Dako A/S, a Danish company that until 2005 was known as DakoCytomation.

Hoerr calls BD Biosciences the dominant player in the industry. Beckman Coulter, which uses an older technology, does most of its business internationally, he said, while Dako has been targeting clinical diagnosis rather than research.

There are also other start-ups in the business, such as Seattle-based Cytopeia, he added.

ICyt has learned some lessons in the few months it's been selling the Reflection, Hoerr said.

"We're pricing very competitively. We don't have the luxury to price as we like," Hoerr said. The company has also made a commitment to field service support, he added.

Hoerr said iCyt Mission Technology, based in the University of Illinois Research Park, employs about 48 full-time employees. That's up from about 30 full-time employees 18 months ago.

Most recent hires have been manufacturing or assembly technicians, but Hoerr said the company also plans to hire East and West Coast salespeople in the next six months and to double the size of its field service team in 2007.

The company occupies about half of the 45,000-square-foot iCyt building at 1816 S. Oak St., C. Hoerr said iCyt expects to expand again, perhaps as soon as next fall, but more likely in the first quarter of 2008.

"It depends how quickly the new instrument catches on in the marketplace," he said.

ICyt's cell-sorting technology changes the way researchers work. Conventionally, a pathologist studying cancer might put blood samples on a slide and study them using a high-powered microscope.

But using fluorescent markers, researchers can indicate "cells of interest" and isolate them using cell sorters. Scientists can then study those cells to see how they react to drugs and other agents.

Now sorters are moving into diagnostic and treatment applications.

"Everybody has adult stem cells, but they're rare and difficult to find," Hoerr said. But it's possible to take cells from the body, isolate adult stem cells and reintroduce them to the human body, targeting the part of the body that needs them. For instance, the cells could be enriched and targeted on a bad liver to help reform it.

"Cancer and HIV-AIDS have driven growth in cytometry," Hoerr said.

Advances in medicine are likely to increase the demand for cell sorters, he added.

"Instead of treating with chemicals or drugs, they'll treat with biological cells or proteins," Hoerr said.

Washington University at St. Louis is using iCyt cell sorters, one in a research lab and the other in a clinical sorting facility. And iCyt is entering an agreement with Carle Foundation and the UI's Institute for Genomic Biology that would allow them to use a cell sorter at iCyt.

Another of iCyt's customers, Monsanto, uses an industrial sorter to help sort bull semen, Hoerr said. The objective is to produce dairy cows, rather than bulls.

Another application might be making cosmetics from plant extracts, he added. That kind of application has not been economically viable with traditional cell-sorting technology.

"With ours, it becomes economic," he said, adding it's important to educate potential users about possible applications of the technology.

Hoerr said a consortium of three investors has provided outside equity to iCyt during the last few years.

The consortium – made up of the Helmuth Family LLC, IllinoisVentures and Fox Capital – provided two rounds of equity funding in the summers of 2005 and 2006. Durack and Hoerr continue to hold a majority interest in the company, Hoerr said.

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