In our final report on companies featured in last year’s Young Company Showcase, we speak to Dr Brian Miller, co-founder of uFraction8, which has developed a new technology for separating cells such as yeast, algae, and bacteria, for use by large scale biomanufacturing plants.
The resulting products are used in beer, insulin, nutriceuticals, pigments, animal and human foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, and fine chemicals. uFraction8’s technology replaces the traditional long- winded and expensive sequence of filtration, flocculation, centrifugation, and drying required to produce these cells.
What was the inspiration for starting the company?
During the research where our technology was invented, I discovered that it isn’t only drinking water treatment which has issues with separating biological cells. The more I looked into filtration and centrifugation processes, the more I saw shortcomings that have been holding back cross-sectoral industries for decades. The newest large scale bioseparation technology is centrifugation, which is 150 year old technology. There are other technologies out there, but operating them at scale has always been an issue.
What is microfluidics, and what difference does it make?
Microfluidics is a broad term, which encompasses technologies that take advantage of confining fluids into small spaces (gas and liquids). When this happens, the flows become more ordered and predictable due to a decrease in turbulence, a good analogy could be aerodynamics, where trying to move large objects creates drag through turbulence. When we make the flow less turbulent, we can exploit phenomena that are unstable in less confined flows. Boiling it all down, using microfluidics means we can offer reliable separation and concentration of cells, with very low energy use and low shearing, as opposed to what happens in a centrifuge. The way we configure our technology, the flows do not hit obstacles or pores, like they would in a filter, where trapped particles or cells form a cake preventing flow and clogging. Our technology can perform with highly concentrated cells just as well as with low concentrations. This allows us to offer the benefits of both centrifuges and filters without the downsides of either.
Is there no other company taking this approach to the same problem?
The closest would be PALL corporation with a new technology based on active surface acoustic wave technologies. The issue is that this adds to energy requirements, has thermal considerations to take into account, makes construction very complex and expensive as well as limiting the ability to scale as easily. We are unique in being able to scale passive hydrodynamic separation technology, where the only moving part in the system is a pump. We have now demonstrated at a ¼ MVP scale, throughputs of 22.5 litres per minute. This makes our technology the fastest microfluidics based system in the world to the best of our knowledge, even at only ¼ scale.
Where does the company’s name come from?
The original research was looking at environmental monitoring applications, where it is common to have a mix of different particles and cells to process. It was apparent that if you wanted to find just one type of cell, in this case a potentially fatal, disease causing, chemically resistant bug, we would need to take everything else out as best we could. So a configuration that sequentially removes “fractions” based on particle size was developed, where the largest fraction is removed, then the next largest, etc. until we have removed everything larger than our target and can pull it out mostly clean. At the time we chose our name, iPads and iPhones were very popular. Against this background, we thought instead of it being about the individual “I”, we wanted to enable “you” our customers to fractionate your targets on a micron scale. As scientists we are also quite geeky, and the greek letter “mu” is used to denote “micro” but looks like a stylised u. So we put it all together to make uFraction8, meaning both “you” and “micro” fractionate. It also makes a very unique handle and URL which helps us differentiate ourselves from other companies online.
You have had recognition from a number of different awards – how has this helped the company’s development?
In many cases, these awards come with some helpful funding. We have been extremely lucky to be able to leverage almost £500k against equity investment of only £70k. It also has helped get the word out around the world about what we are doing. We have tested with companies from around the globe, from Singapore to Canada, and have been approached by some global corporates in our space (Thermofisher, Roche and Veolia) as they have become aware of us through this exposure. Realistically though, we have struggled to garner the real investment required to get us developing more quickly. We are still a very small team and the current appetite from traditional venture funders has shifted against high capital “real-tech” equipment operating a traditional equipment sales model. We are now trying to change our approach and find a strategic partner that will see the end user benefits our technology will offer, to help fund our development.