HAMBURG, Germany -- BioChip Technologies GmbH, a start-up founded one year ago in Freiburg, Germany, is now beginning to sell its first product, a DNA microarray called NutriChip. The chip is designed to detect foreign DNA in food.

BioChip Technologies was founded with DM12 million (US$7.1 million), provided by a combination of DM400,000 private money from the founders; venture capital from FFG, of Frankfurt/Main, Germany; and public money from the state of Baden-Württemberg. The company employs a staff of 16 and plans brisk growth for next year.

The first product is a chip called NutriChip, designed to control production processes; to examine food for microbial contamination (e.g., salmonella); and to analyze processed food for transgenes. Foreign DNA is detected by oligonucleotide probes arranged on a flat surface.

The chips are built by printing the required oligonucleotides in a thin-layer on glass or polymer surfaces with a NanoJet-Printer. This nanoprint device is able to arrange droplets in the nano- or even picoliter scale, in a grid pattern. The oligonucleotide probes are then coupled to the surface, forming up to 1,000 dots with a radius of 40 micrometers to 150 micrometers.

Genetic material isolated from the sample and labeled with fluorescent dyes is then added to the chip for hybridization. After unbound and excess DNA are removed, workers screen the arrays for specific fluorescent emissions by using a BioDetect device that recognizes different chip configurations and simultaneously performs statistical proof readings. Readouts are analyzed by software and the results printed or stored in a database.

Hubert Bernauer, scientific CEO and one of the founders of BioChip Technologies, told BioWorld International his company is not competing with chip manufacturers that design costly high-density chips: "These chips cause quite a stir scientifically and promise unimagined future possibilities for research," he said. "However, more and more users are coming to the conclusion that in biochip-based analytics, selective questions can provide selective answers, and this can be achieved with systems in the low- and medium-density sector already. With these systems, the specificity of the interaction of the molecules is sufficient to determine a relevant set of parameters even in a very complex sample. Decisive is the amount of knowledge and intelligence that went into the design of the chip."

Bernauer said such chips could be produced at low cost because they had fewer rejects. "In addition, evaluation of the system is easier and the error rate much lower," he said. The chips will be sold in a range from DM50 to DM500, depending on complexity and number of units.

"Compared to conventional analysis, the advantages are lower cost and higher speed," Bernauer said. "For example, in contamination analysis, there is no need for cultivation any more. Analysis is five times faster with our NutriChip."

For Bernauer, food analysis is only a testing ground for the new technology. "Commercially, the most attractive market is medical diagnostics," he said. "However, registration procedures are tedious."

Later next year, BioChip Technologies plans to expand the production range to chips for water analysis and medical applications such as HLA- and chromosome-typing, and the detection of viruses and prokaryotes in blood and other body fluids. Customers will be able to order small or medium lots of tailor-made chips for research applications, or even large lots for analytical and diagnostic purposes. "Our technology enables us to design medium-density chips with up to 10,000 dots," Bernauer said. In the future, the company plans to integrate polymerase chain reaction and other sample preparation steps into its device.

BioChip Technologies works in close cooperation with Gene-Scan, of Freiburg, Germany, and Hanse-Analytik, of Bremen, Germany, both specialists in the detection of DNA in food. Other partners are the Institute for Microsystem Techniques, of Villingen-Schwenningen, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques, of Freiburg, Germany.

"We view ourselves as pioneers in the field and want to increase our competitive advantage internationally," said Ulrich Birsner, co-founder and CEO of BioChip Technologies, adding that he expects the company to go public soon. "We want to raise money at the stock market to finance further growth. Today, it is only possible to survive in the global competition with a sufficient capital base. We love to be a specialist, but one with worldwide operations." *