Thinking big to see (very) small
Exciting Instruments' new device could have a major impact
When was I recently introduced to a company building extremely niche modular hardware, I was wasn’t sure it would be a good fit for this newsletter.
But the more I spoke to Exciting Instruments, the more I was drawn into their world of single-molecule science and the potential impact their compact new device could have on everything from early cancer diagnoses to our understanding of fundamental biology. Scroll down to read all about them.
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Exciting Instruments wants to open up the market for big research about small things
To understand biology at a really detailed level, scientists often benefit from getting a close look at a single molecule.
This science has come a long way since the first crystal structure of myoglobin in 1960 gave us an atomic-level understanding of biology. But this was a static snapshot. If you see a molecule moving, you can better understand what it does and how.
Scientists wanting to observe single molecules in action need to use an enormous, very expensive device that requires a special kind of table in a special kind of laboratory and is way outside the purchase budget of a typical research project.
Now Sheffield-based Exciting Instruments has developed a tabletop, lower-cost, easier-to-use alternative device for single-molecule research. The team describe what they’re doing as “democratising single molecule research”. They’re a great example of how university research can be commercialised with potentially a big impact on how much we understand about biology.
It could also lead to improvements in drug development, environmental testing, and even cancer diagnoses at a very early stage.
Thinking big… and small
When Dr Tim Craggs started a biophysics lab at the University of Sheffield six years ago, he didn’t have the budget for one of the large molecule detection machines, so he decided to make his own. This ended up becoming the smfBox, an instrument housed in an aluminium box that is designed for conducting single-molecule experiments.
Initially doubting the business case for commercialising it, the team open-sourced the tech. But while a handful of labs around the world have taken up the task of building one, this can take months to complete. Craggs and his team wondered if there might be business potential in a higher-spec version people can buy prebuilt, with a modular approach that allowed the technology to be expanded to serve different markets and specialisms over time.
The university’s tech transfer team introduced them to venture partner specialist Bulldozer, to spin out Exciting Instruments as a startup. Bulldozer’s Robert Bell and Chris Sellars came on board as CEO and CFO respectively.
Together, they developed their first product, which measures a compact 600mm x 600mm square, and around 500mm in height. It’s a big leap forward from the smfBox, and from the large devices it aims to replace.
“Often these things have to go on big vibration isolation tables in laser labs, but because we've shrunk the form factor, it actually goes on its own little vibration isolation unit and then you can just stick it in your normal lab,” says Craggs.
“And you can work with the lights on. Even though it uses powerful lasers, it does so in the same way that your CD ,DVD or Blu-ray does - completely enclosed. So you don't have to have any laser safety training to use it.”
Craggs says the company’s first unit shipped to the US last week, with four more orders confirmed before they’ve even started properly marketing it. The initial version of the product is priced at £110,000 for academic customers. “That's very carefully positioned to fit on most normal responsive mode grants in the UK,” says Craggs. “It's also just the right amount in US dollars to fit on some of their supplemental grants.”
And while Exciting Instruments’ market is niche, Craggs says they turn “a really healthy profit” on each device sold and the overall market is potentially significant.
“There are 5,000 people in the world with active grants, with ‘single molecule’ in the title, working in this space… and the whole of that market is addressable.”
But Craggs believes they can unlock a much bigger market simply because the price and practicality of the device makes it much more feasible to do the kind of research it enables at a much lower cost.
As Exciting Instruments produces more modules, it will be able to address other markets such as industry, environmental testing, and medical diagnostics. Craggs says they have already garnered interest from several large pharmaceutical companies who could become customers once the right modules are ready for sale.
Craggs says the product is already opening up new possibilities for its first customers:
“One of them wants to use it in a glove box where they can work in the absence of oxygen. It's sufficiently small that it will fit in there. And another person wants to use it in a virology lab where they're going to be throwing Covid and HIV, real nasties at it. There's no way you could put one of these other instruments into such a facility, so the form factor is already proving really popular for specific applications.”
CEO Robert Bell says that the form factor could make the device useful for on-site testing by water companies, or any other highly specialised, molecular-level testing away from a lab.
Craggs adds there is also big potential here for cancer diagnosis:
“We've got a project that we're about to start, looking at early biomarker detection. Everyone knows that the earlier you spot cancer, the better. Our platform technology and single molecule detection is going to detect the first biomarker for your cancer. It's going to be that level of detection… detecting that first molecule versus detecting a stage-four tumour. It's a completely different position and outlook for those patients then.”
While the first few sales have been in the USA, the startup plans to open up to other countries gradually, so they can adjust their sales approach to the specifics of each market. Bell says they aim to open up to a couple of more markets this year.
Investment plans, next steps, and timescales
With all this potential, the obvious question is ‘why hasn’t anyone done this before’?
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