Understanding proteins is the driving force behind tools developer ProteinSimple. “You can’t fully understand disease without understanding proteins,” CEO Tim Harkness says.
That conviction helped Harkness and his team build a company from 30 employees, no commercial products, and no revenue in 2008 to an organization that today has 170 employees, four product lines, and $50 million in revenue. “We are cash-flow positive and fully self-sustaining at this point. We fund all of our product development and growth capital needs with internally generated cash flow,” he says.
The company spent its first four years, from 2004 to 2008, developing the technology behind the Simple Western™ platform. When Harkness and his team joined the company, they initially focused on launching the first product, the NanoPro™ 1000, which separated proteins by charge, and targeted protein-signaling applications. They realized the technology platform could address a much larger market by separating proteins by size, a technique that is the basis of the Western blot. During the next few years, the team focused on using the Simple Western platform to reinvent and revolutionize the Western blot.
The company was able to reimagine the Western blot because Simple Western’s team approached Western blots from an entirely new angle. Instead of automating the movement of gels and blots typically used in a Western, the team put the entire workflow into a capillary.
“We were able to develop a fully automated, quantitative, reproducible immunoassay in a capillary for the first time in history,” Harkness says. “This allowed us to address all of the shortcomings associated with the 30-year-old Western blot technology.”
The Western blot is the most widely used protein analysis technique. “It was invented in the 1970s and has been done in much the same manual, tedious, multistep way ever since,” Harkness explains.
Traditionally, Western blot analysis has been a time-consuming, labor-intensive process with multiple steps that often required optimization and sometimes lengthy incubation times. The hands-on nature of the process makes it easy to introduce errors, and results often are considered difficult to reproduce. “Traditional Western blot analysis is semi-quantitative at best and is not easily reproducible from one day to the next or from one person to the next,” Harkness points out.
Although other companies had automated some of the more tedious steps of the process, none had developed a completely automated system—until ProteinSimple launched the Simple Western. By moving Western blot analysis from gels to capillaries and completely automating analysis, ProteinSimple says it is revolutionizing Western blot technology. Harkness describes the Simple Western as “a gel-free, blot-free, hands-free assay.”
For the first time, researchers can get quantitative, reproducible Western data automatically,” says Harkness. “Using Simple Western, the researcher prepares the sample as usual, pipettes it into a plate, places that plate in the instrument, presses ‘start,’ and walks away.” Fully analyzed, quantitative, reproducible data is ready within a few hours or, for large quantities of samples, overnight.
“This frees researchers’ time [and] produces higher quality data and more reproducible results.” With as little as 30 minutes of hands-on time, a researcher can now generate 96 Western data points and achieve coefficients of variation below 10%.
More than 35,000 researchers around the world are running Western blots today. “This is a billion dollar opportunity, and our goal is to target that entire market with a variety of options and price points,” Harkness says.