Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Bio-Rad Sips Up RainDance

Monday evening brought news that Bio-Rad has further consolidated its grip on the droplet microfluidics space by acquiring RainDance Technologies for an undisclosed price.  Bio-Rad had previously acquired droplet digital PCR company QuantaLife back in October of 2011 and targeted sequencing company GnuBio in April of 2014.  While the droplet digital PCR has been marketed for many years now, the GnuBio effort had gone relatively quiet since the acquisition.  However, Bio-Rad announced the JP Morgan conference that this technology will be launched as OncoDrop late this year.
RainDance was the first company to commercialize picoliter droplet technology in the life sciences, a technology developed by David Weitz's lab at Harvard University.  By choosing the correct surfactants, reagents are encapsulated in these tiny droplets, which can be sorted, split and merged as well as thermocycled and put through other hoops.  RainDance was also Jonathan Rothberg's segue from 454 to Ion Torrent.  

Commercially, RainDance seemed early on to focus on really big systems for high-throughput labs, an approach that never seemed to move beyond a drizzle of activity.  The first application for the technology was droplet-based PCR to enrich upstream of high-throughput sequencing.  Agilent's SureSelect technology launched around the same time and soon dominated, with companies such as NimbleGen also grabbing share.  RainDance survived, unlike some competitors in the the market (such as Febit), but didn't exactly storm the field.  Later they tried to pivot to digital PCR, but the first system was again big and expensive and didn't blow away the competition, such as Bio-Rad.  RainDance didn't launch a product of their own in the linked read space, which seems like a grand missed opportunity.  Instead, 10X Genomics pulled in a huge investment for this space.  Recently, iGenomX built their linked read technology on the RainDance platform.

Bio-Rad's press release trumpets in the headline that they will be acquiring intellectual property in the deal.  So having now consolidated the companies spun out of Weitz's lab and other IP, Bio-Rad should have a strong position to target other companies in the space.  Or company: the obvious target of this effort is 10X Genomics

RainDance (along with University of Chicago) had already sued 10X over intellectual property back in 2015 (I am unaware of the current status of this suit).  Bio-Rad lost an arbitration case against three founders of 10X, who had previously been at QuantaLife.  With no love lost there and now a bulked up patent portfolio, Bio-Rad may well be itching for new fights with 10X.

There would appear to be substantial overlap in the Bio-Rad's and RainDance's product portfolio, which suggests that some products will be folded together.  For example, both the RainDrop Plus and the Bio-Rad QX200 systems are two boxes which work with a thermocycler to run digital PCR assays; one generates emulsions and one counts them.  I'm not familiar with their exact specs, so perhaps they are serving different markets.  The droplet maker component appears also to the hardware for RainDance's low throughput ThunderBolts enrichment system.  ThunderBolts will be competing in a similar application space to the ex-GnuBio OncoDrop technology, though their details are greatly different.  Bio-Rad may well keep both, but might also nudge ThunderBolts customers towards OncoDrop since the latter will be entirely theirs.

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