Research machine is a worldwide hit

A MACHINE created by a self-funded start-up firm based in Suffolk is set to revolutionise research and drug development, its makers say.

Bury St Edmunds-based Redd & Whyte are celebrating after their new �26,000-plus product, which was launched in October this year, scooped a major accolade when it was named by The Scientist, a US-based scientific magazine, as one of the top 10 innovations of 2010.

Roger Poole invented the Preddator, a machine which can accurately share out minute quantities of liquid between up to thousands of “wells” or tiny test tubes, in response to demand from biotech and pharmaceutical firms.

He joined forces with commercial expert Martyn Hanlon three years ago, and the pair, whose bid for grant funding was knocked back, decided to go it alone and develop the product without grant funding support. The work has been funded by the two founders and one private investor.

However, they did gain the use of laboratory facilities, courtesy of major drugs firms AstraZeneca and Novartis and the Institute for Biomedical Research in Basel, Switzerland, and three years on were able to bring the product to market.

The company is currently moving from premises in Elmswell to Bury St Edmunds, and expects to take on up to around 30 staff next year as the company grows.

The machine is manufactured in northern California, but the pair hope it may be possible to make it in the UK at some point in the future if circumstances are favourable.

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“We were unable to get any support, so unfortunately the manufacture is taking place in America,” said Mr Hanlon.

Mr Poole added: “The business model is a virtual business model which we believe makes us more successful in this climate.”

The firm’s financial advisers, Baker Tilly, expect the company to be worth more than �80million in about three years’ time, he said.

The invention was selected from more than 60 life sciences entries by a magazine judging panel, and came in in tenth place.

Mr Poole, the firm’s managing director, said they were “absolutely delighted” about the accolade.

“This is a significant achievement for a small and relatively unknown start-up company, and we are indebted to several local firms for their invaluable professional advice and support. “In particular, Baker Tilly, who look after all our financial planning and accountancy, Taylor Vinter who carry out our legal work and Lloyds TSB Commercial in Cambridge,” he said.

Commercial director Mr Hanlon added: “We have beaten off stiff competition to feature alongside some of the industry’s largest and best known companies. We’re looking forward to a very exciting year ahead for the Preddator.”

So far, five of the machines have been sold, and a further five, currently being manufactured are also already pre-sold. Customers include three of the five largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, said Mr Hanlon.

They had followed a very successful “virtual company” model which had enabled them to grow the company, said Mr Poole.

“It’s totally my little baby, and we will be bringing manufacturing over to the UK eventually,” he said.

He met Mr Hanlon while watching a rugby match, and the two decided to join forces to develop the project, he explained.

“Martyn had a lot of commercial experience and I had a lot of technical experience,” he said.

Getting such tiny quantities of liquid into individual “wells” was the technical equivalent of forcing jellified golf balls down a hosepipe, he said.

They were approached by AstraZeneca, which needed something to “miniaturise” in order to allow it to carry out millions of comparison tests to develop new drugs.

“There was not the right dispensing technology available in the market,” he said. “What we did was to set about first and foremost understanding the issues they had and systematically set about solving those problems and that’s culminated in the Preddator.

The Preddator can share out liquids between anything from 96-well to 3,456-well plates.

The applications for the invention are wide, the company says, and could involve anything from oils to human or insect cells.

“It’s revolutionising drug discovery and genomic research,” said Mr Hanlon.

The machine reduces costs and increases the speed of testing, he added.

The firm is also developing other concepts, said Mr Poole.

“The company is going to grow exponentially,” he said.

n The Preddator can be seen in action on You Tube – simply type Preddator in the search.