On the 9th and 10th of May, the Engineering Department of University College Dublin hosted over 60 individuals from around the world, leaders in the field of polymer replication on the nanoscale (PRN).
They were here for PRN 2019, a conference consisting of a collection of talks on the subject, delivered by researchers and members of the industry. There was great energy where participants and speakers alike listened and conversed over novel developments in the field, many of which had been made by those in attendance.
Prof. Dmitry Kashanin, CTO of Cellix, a man with decades of experience in the field of microfluidics, was one of the invited speakers. Before even getting through the door, Dmitry was questioned by an excited individual looking for pointers on his own research. Here Dmitry took on a tone that was to be expressed throughout his upcoming talk. In his advice, he focused on what was realistic and what would actually be used in practice.
The talk started with a summary of Cellix’s main areas of innovation and what areas of the industry it is currently applying its tech in. Listeners were surprised to hear that Dmitry had solutions running in the fields of food & beverage, agri-biotech, and health & personalized medicine.
With many wondering how to develop tech with such a wide array of applications, Dmitry’s answer came fast… and it was written on the next slide 5 times
User Requirements! Or more specifically - “Understanding user requirements and needs before engaging in product development to help shape the product idea and specifications.”
“You can’t develop tech and assume that it can be used for everything. In practice, you have to develop tech for a specific application. The situational use can greatly affect the actual end product device you need to create.” - Dmitry Kashanin
The theme of communicating with people who will actually use your technology is recurrent within the lifespan of Cellix. The inspiration to create biochips was spawned out of a collaboration with Prof. Yuri Volkov and Prof. Dermot Kelleher in the Department of Clinical Medicine of Trinity College Dublin. Yuri’s group was interested in looking at cells in dynamic conditions rather than static, wanting to replicate the conditions of capillary blood vessels.
Several more lab groups were then partnered with to beta test the development of Cellix’s first biochip. This partnering helped elucidate more requirements before any product was actually developed for sale. Together with the groups, Cellix uncovered some key characteristics the chip required:
10-200μm channel dimensions
An array of straight channels
Easy to connect to macro components
From this, the Vena8 biochip was born and it has proven to be a success over time.
Over the next 2 years, Cellix continued to gather feedback on the use of their chips and made sure to keep up to date with the latest research and innovations in the field. They were going to the same conferences their customers were going to. They were hosting demonstrations with a theme of finding out what people wanted the product to do. And they continually focused on strong communications with already existing customers.
One day, while demonstrating the Vena8 chip at Inserim in France, an eager researcher asked Cellix about using fluorescence imaging with the chips. Researchers were now studying single receptors on cells and platelets - biological components that needed more powerful techniques to visualise than what the Vena8 could facilitate.
Looking at these smaller cells with fluorescence required a more powerful microscope and that meant the chip needed a higher level of optical clarity. A clarity that the polymer used in the original Vena8 did not facilitate. The solution to this was to start building the chips with a new polymer (Cyclic Olefin Copolymer) and along with other modifications, the Vena8 Fluro+ was created to accommodate fluorescent imaging.
But if only it was that easy. Improper bonding, bubbles, shrinkages, and more issues came with the new material. The majority of the development of the Vena8 Fluro+ was in quality control!
At this point in the talk, the listeners started to realize the real-life difficulties of tailoring their product to a specific application. The design they thought was best might not be what the consumer wanted and tweaking or tailoring a design often turns out to be more complicated than it first seems.
“It's one thing to demo in a lab on how to do cell culture on your chip. It's another to give your chip to someone and tell them to use it for their assay. All kinds of feedback comes about how the chip could work better. It's a whole different complexity level. You need to initially develop the product in tandem with this feedback.” - Dmitry Kashanin
After keeping a finger on the pulse of the trends in research for so long, Cellix was able to understand the directions the field was heading in and start working on new technology users would need. Next, the plan was to integrate the biochip with an automated sensor.
This led to the design of an on-chip impedance spectroscopy device. Again, one of the most difficult parts was the manufacturing process. Solutions were found in the end but even now there is still work to be done on improving mass production yield.
From their experience of working with so many labs in the past, Dmitry and the Cellix team could tell that impedance spectroscopy had further applications - particularly in cell analysis and cell sorting. Not long after developing and patenting a basic prototype, Cellix was already creating partnerships in the industry to develop a product. A product that was practical, realistic and actually useful.
The resounding message throughout Dmitry's talk is that tailoring your technology towards an application is often much harder than you think. It helps to have an idea of exactly how the tech will be used before developing a product. Having this idea requires good communication with the right people.
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