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The only journal focused on North Alabama’s engineering, space


and genetics community, anchored by Cummings Research Park. WINTER 2009
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Across the
Great Divide
Huntsville firm’s revolutionary cell-culturing
machine will start to change science this summer
By ANNA THIBODEAUX

A
Huntsville startup company’s innovative new cell
growth machine promises to cut the costs, size and
maintenance involved in the mechanics of cell gen-
eration, and it’s about to hit prime-time. When the first
device – dubbed InQ – rolls off the production line this
summer, its inventors believe it’s going to replace the petri
dish, its more than 130-year-old predecessor, in laboratory
experimentation and advancing biotechnology.
“It’s a smart petri dish that grows cells as if they’re in
your body,” says Aaron Hammons of the portable cell
incubator. What makes InQ so hot is that, when
researchers throw out their petri dishes, they will also
sever their ties to all the expensive machinery needed to
keep cell growth processes

Winter 2009 COVER STORY HUNTSVILLE R&D 27


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BOB GATHANY

From left, Amy Bishop, UAH co-inventor, Aaron Hammons, Micah Harvey and Dick Reeves, former Biztech CEO.

progressing in those dishes. Instead, the University of Alabama in tained cell incubation system that is
they will work with a vastly smaller Huntsville. “My colleagues think it mobile and eliminates many of the
machine that is portable and inexpen- will change the face of tissue culture. It problems with cultivating tissues in the
sive. Hammons is the CEO of Prodigy will allow us, as researchers, to not live fragile environment of the petri dish. It
Biosystems, the company formed to in the lab and control our tissue cul- also has its own on-board computer
develop and market the device, and he ture conditions, including the sensitive that maintains and regulates the incu-
says his first impression was, “Why cultures including those like adult stem bator, allowing tighter control of the
hadn’t someone done this before?” cells. The conditions to differentiate cell environment.
InQ co-inventor Amy Bishop credits those have to be exact, and the incuba- Hammons’ market research indicates
the coming together of a group of peo- tor will help that.” up to 40 percent of cultures in a petri
ple with certain skills and crossover Tired of applying 1920s science to dish are lost to contamination, so the
knowledge in a series of highly fortu- the rapidly advancing work of biotech- more stable InQ seems like a no-brain-
nate events fueled by Huntsville’s evolv- nology, Bishop approached her hus- er. But even the most obvious ideas also
ing entrepreneurial spirit. band, Jim Anderson, chief science offi- need the right conditions for success.
“It’s great to actually see it hit the cer of Cherokee Labsystems in
market, and the sooner the better,” Huntsville, about inventing a portable
says Bishop, assistant professor in the cell incubator. Together, she and BETTER CHEMISTRY
Department of Biological Sciences at Anderson designed a sealed, self-con- About 1 1/2 years ago, Bishop

28 HUNTSVILLE R&D COVER STORY Winter 2009


RandD-01-04.qxp-1 12/16/08 11:35 AM Page 29

COVER STORY
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“InQ should bring major productiv- Heating and Air Conditioning
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says former BizTech CEO Dick Reeves,
who now serves there as a consultant.
“It brings modern information techol-
ogy to the biology lab, which for some
reason has been bypassed so far. The
human-body-like environment it cre-
ates for the cells a researcher is study-
ing will make it possible to speed up
biological experimentation and study
by major accounts.”
Hammons’ studies verified the con-
cept’s viability and BizTech formed the
company that is bringing InQ to mar-
ket. A business team was assembled
including Hammons as CEO, and he
recruited Micah Harvey to be vice
president of product development for
the engineering work. Bishop and
Anderson wanted to play a role in the
project, but did not want to manage
the company to develop and market it.
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30 HUNTSVILLE R&D COVER STORY Winter 2009

and looking for a biotech-related proj- year. From there, his role changed to GOING TO MARKET
ect he could head up, and we hooked product development. Hammons says one of the first chal-
the need with the resource.” Hammons The company, then called IntelCell, lenges was naming the company. They
says what attracted him to the project placed third in the Alabama filed a trademark to call it IntelCell. But
was seeing cell culture, engineering Launchpad’s business plan competi- for legal reasons, the company was soon
and software come together for the tion in 2007. Hammons says the com- renamed Prodigy Biosystems.
first time. His market analysis revealed petition helped fine-tune their busi- Hammons says they wanted the new
no one else was coming close to doing ness plan, as well as provided the name to reflect the incubator as a smart
that in a mobile device with miniature $25,000 prize money that helped petri dish that doesn’t just grow cells
components and digital controls, or in launch the company and gain investor but also nurtures them. “If you ask any-
the price range of $2,000 to $2,500 confidence. Alabama Launchpad is a one doing cell cultures, they’ll tell you
per unit. project of the Economic Development cells are their babies,” he says of
“I just saw a huge opportunity Partnership (EDPA) of Alabama that researchers pulling long hours to care
there,” Hammons says. “This will be promotes economic development in for them.
my first one taking to market. It’s mov- the state. The EDPA has been a leader While there were stressful moments
ing pretty fast, but you have to get to in initiating the movement to capital- about raising money, Hammons says his
market as fast as possible. If you can ize on the universities’ research to cre- worries quickly eased.
have excited, stressed and scared at the ate jobs and wealth locally. It recog- “It was an easy sell, because the part
same time, that’s what my emotion nizes technologies and provides seed of our investors who are scientists got
would be.” money for three start-up businesses a into the science and the tech investors
Harvey initially assisted with the year. The program also is aimed at got into the engineering and science,”
market analysis and then 3-D model- raising awareness of how entrepre- he says. “And this is a time when
ing to sell the concept to Alabama neurship is an important economic biotech is really taking off in Huntsville.
Launchpad and investors earlier this development driver.

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Winter 2009 COVER STORY HUNTSVILLE R&D 31

We’re taking off at the perfect time, at likely to welcome the incubator to culti- brick.” It will be customizable and
the perfect place.” vate neurons, which are finicky. “We available in just about any color
The major challenge lies in convinc- feel if we can tackle that market, we can desired, even pink.
ing scientists to use the InQ, which tackle any market with aid from Amy, Bishop says the device being smaller,
Hammons considers an especially and then we can spread out from more affordable and more controllable,
daunting marketing task when the petri there,” Hammons says. Within five with more software integration, takes it
dish has been around more than 130 years, they hope to be in neural cell, in a different direction than their com-
years. Despite its headaches, he says stem cell and all primary human tissue petitors. “We just kind of scooped the
that’s what they’re accustomed to using. markets. industry by going in the right direction
“For some people it’ll be an easy sell, For Harvey, the challenge has been at the right time.”
while other scientists are only interested to shrink the refrigerator-sized unit to It’s a direction that Hammons says
in their own research, and learning a one that can fit on a desk without los- will provide much more information to
technology might take away from that ing effectiveness, while anticipating scientists who are accustomed to the
research,” he says. “The challenge is to future needs. Even with three years limited data coming from their petri
prove InQ can get results 10 times experience in product development, he dishes. “We can measure every millisec-
faster, with more accuracy and more says it’s proven the most challenging ond or every hour, depending on what’s
data.” work of his career. He’s striving for needed. Compare getting a datasheet
Because 85 percent of the world’s that delicate balance where he keeps with 100,000 datapoints compared to
research occurs in the U.S., they will ini- all the moving parts together while ‘the cells are OK today,’” he says of
tially target sales in the domestic mar- keeping on path with their slogan of InQ. They are recruiting professors and
ket, then expand internationally two to “Growing Smarter. Harness the power researchers for a three-month beta test
three years later. They hope to sell 500 of a cell incubator.” of the unit and hope a successful trial
units the first year, mostly to neurosci- Also, Hammons is determined to will help jump-start business by word of
entists like Bishop who would be more avoid the InQ becoming a “big black mouth.

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32 HUNTSVILLE R&D COVER STORY Winter 2009

INQ’S TIMING vators out there, and the difference new companies coming out of new
From a science perspective, Bishop between the one who comes up with a technology developed in the labs of
praises the pro-technology environ- great innovation and me is, all these universities. BizTech has been incubat-
ment at UAH and BizTech. elements come together in a synergy to ing new companies started by
“I feel I’m part of a new wave of make it happen,” Bishop says. “And Huntsville engineers and scientists for
biotechnology, cell biology and neuro- it’s why American inventors are sup- more than 11 years. Two years ago, it
science,” she says. Citing a study that ported in a real and immediate way, so partnered with UAH to provide these
indicates using rats as study subjects America can have a renaissance in services for ideas created in the univer-
may be invalid because they’re not as innovation, and I think Huntsville is sity’s research labs. The effort provides
similar physiologically to humans as doing that.” a bridge to the marketplace for aca-
originally thought, Bishop says InQ’s At UAH, professors are coached on demics who create innovations but
timing is particularly significant. “This their inventions as potential intellectu- don’t want to be an entrepreneur.
means science must push toward using al property and on how to get their dis- “With its usual wanna-be engineers
human cells to test drugs, injuries, etc. coveries to the market to really help and scientists,” Reeves says, “BizTech
This is a crisis point.” The InQ would people. Bishop feels fortunate to have has a person who wants to be the
allow use of adult stem cells, which she had that input, which she says isn’t entrepreneur, to lead the company and
says can be backed up to a near-embry- being provided at many Ivy League to activity participate in its day-to-day
onic cell state without controversy, institutions, where she says innovation business.”
while still furthering the technology. money is going to overseas researchers BizTech’s technology commercial-
Tissue cultured in less than year would brought in as low-cost staffing to the ization service fills the entrepreneurial
eliminate the enormous culling of rats exclusion of American researchers and role, which Reeves says involves doing
needed in order to obtain a viable innovators. all the organizational work on a con-
research test group. InQ represents the first of what cept, from determining commercial
“There are a lot of American inno- Reeves hopes will be a steady stream of merit to cost and design. During this

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Winter 2009 COVER STORY HUNTSVILLE R&D 33

period, the newly founded company is selves into a network that can bring many of this kind of person, comfort-
a client and receives office space, these capabilities to every part of the able with uncertainty and with
advice and services needed in order to state, he says. The BizTech model of incomplete information, willing to
develop. When the development work technology commercialization will be push the established envelope in order
is done, a company is formed, a man- a key element in that plan. to accomplish something new. Dr.
agement team is recruited, money is “You have to create the right kind Amy Bishop and her husband, Jim,
raised from investors and then the new of environment for this to work, and inventors of the InQ, are this sort of
company spins off as an independent. you have to be bring together the person. They are difficult people for
As a client, Prodigy Biosystems’ right kinds of people,” Reeves says. many of us to deal with, because they
office and labs are at BizTech’s “Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s for- are unwilling to accept the established
Sparkman Drive location. BizTech mer chief of technology officer, put it ways of things, and they believe that
assembled the company’s management this way: ‘Huntsville has always had better is possible.’” ■
team and board of directors, and earli-
er this year helped draw $1.25 million
in angel investors for its capital.

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Huntsville’s continuing emergence

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as an innovation player in Alabama is
helping address what Reeves says is
one of the state’s great challenges –
equipping its people and economy
with the tools needed to provide job
and wealth creation in the knowl-
edge-based economy. “Without these
jobs, our young people will have to go
elsewhere to earn the style of living
they feel should be theirs,” he says.
“Huntsville has always been a leader
in the formation of Alabama’s tech-
nology industry, taking pieces of tech-
nology coming out of our government STUART M. MAPLES CHARLES A. RAY, IV
labs and turning those into new infor- SMAPLES@MAPLESANDRAY.COM CRAY@MAPLESANDRAY.COM
mation technology companies like
SCI, Intergraph, Adtran and FINANCIAL RESTRUCTURING/BANKRUPTCY
Avocent.”
Now, Jim Hudson and his team at CONSTRUCTION LAW
HudsonAlpha Institute for
Biotechnology are leading COMMERCIAL LITIGATION
Huntsville’s way into the biotechnolo-
gy field, Reeves says, using technolo- CREDITORS RIGHTS
gy to personalize medicine. “InQ is
just another example of how the
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HUNTSVILLE, AL 35801
come.” NO REPRESENTATION IS MADE THAT THE QUALITY OF LEGAL SERVICES TO BE PERFORMED IS GREATER THAN THE QUALITY OF LEGAL SERVICES PERFORMED BY OTHER LAWYERS.
Alabama’s business incubators are
working together to organize them-