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From scientist to entrepreneur: how a Belgian chromatography company came to be

Written by ALB on in the category Insights with the tags , , .


Pharmafluidics is a Belgian company rethinking the fundamentals of liquid chromatography. Introducing a fundamentally new type of stationary phase in its chip-etched columns represented a major innovation in this well-established domain. We have covered PharmaFluidics' breakthrough innovations in these two previous BioVox articles (12). Now we take a look behind the scenes and speak to Paul Jacobs, a pioneering engineer, co-founder and COO of PharmaFluidics, about his journey from scientist to businessman.

Chromatography is a vital technique used to separate the various constituents of a mixture. There are two main phases: a mobile phase, where the substance under investigation is dissolved in a fluid, and a stationary phase, where the liquid flows through a material column that results in the separation of the mixture into its various constituents.

For decades, liquid chromatography has relied on using a column of packed beads to separate compounds. PharmaFluidics’ µPACᵀᴹ columns offer the first new approach to this technique in decades: they have replaced the randomly packed beads with a perfectly ordered and optimized array of freestanding silicon pillars, produced using chip-etching technology. This new paradigm has resulted in a number of benefits, such as excellent performance and extreme reproducibility and robustness.

In this article, Paul Jacobs, Co-Founder and COO of PharmaFluidics, discusses the nascence of PharmaFluidics and how their technology now helps others, in the fields of proteomics, lipidomics, metabolomics and the analysis of biopharmaceuticals, to conduct cutting edge R&D.

What led to your founding of PharmaFluidics?

Jacobs: "After completing my Ph.D. in the engineering of biosensors, I spent fifteen years working in industry, developing diagnostic sensors and microfluidic devices. PharmaFluidics was founded by myself and two professors from the University of Brussels: Prof. Gert Desmet, who I knew from his pioneering work in shear-driven chromatography, and Prof. Wim De Malsche, who had been translating Gert’s models into micromachined prototypes.

It all started with a discussion in Brussels Airport, where we agreed that it would be interesting to combine their knowledge and ideas in chromatography and micromachining with my expertise in the industrialization and development of microfluidic devices and miniaturized sensors for life sciences.

It’s as if you’re living a dream: I’ve had the chance to go from researcher to developing a technology that helps other scientists conduct their research. - Paul Jacobs, PharmaFluidics
 

We quickly decided to focus on chromatography and were able to get some investors onboard early on. This allowed us to successfully launch our unique micropillar array column technology.

Now, as the COO of PharmaFluidics, I’m involved in a variable list of day-to-day tasks, quite different from my days as a researcher. It keeps the job from ever getting boring!"

When you co-founded PharmaFluidics, what was your vision for the company?

"Our vision was to refine and improve the technology we had until it could become a stellar commercial product. Today, our innovation provides significant improvements for separation and analysis of complex biological samples.

I was very lucky to be able to build an enthusiastic team of skilled people. Together we have bridged the gap between the academic proof-of-principle we started out with and a product that is end-user ready. The products we offer, micro pillar array columns, are changing biological analysis as we know it."

How do the PharmaFluidics columns benefit scientists?

"The way we produce these chromatography columns is different from how packed bed columns are normally manufactured. We carefully design the backbone of the stationary phase and then transfer the design onto a silicon wafer, using technologies which are similar to those in car or smartphone sensors. By doing it this way, we can create perfect order in the separation beds, which means the separation becomes more efficient.

I’m convinced that the PharmaFluidics technology will continue to play a central role in how future biological and chemical analyses are performed. - Paul Jacobs, PharmaFluidics
 

Because of the way we make our columns, they have a higher separation power than normally produced columns. What this means for scientists using our technology, is an increased level of sensitivity and a higher dynamic range for what they can detect in their samples. The technology also has high levels of reproducibility, so researchers can easily conduct complex analyses suited for big data analysis.

The material also makes a big difference to users: the fact that the columns are made out of a monolithic silicon block makes them very robust, increasing their longevity. Because they last longer, columns don’t need to be replaced as frequently, which is important if a researcher is in the middle of large research projects such as a biomarker discovery study."

What are the most common scientific applications for your micro pillar array columns?

"The micro pillar array columns perform exceptionally well in biomarker research, but the technology is also very beneficial to researchers studying the proteome, metabolome or lipidome. The columns also work superbly well for people trying to detect minor contaminations or subtle variations between biomolecules.

We are currently expanding our portfolio to include higher flow ranges, where the high level of reproducibility is an even stronger asset and the columns can be used for quality control applications."

What do you think the future holds for PharmaFluidics?

"I’m convinced that the PharmaFluidics technology will continue to play a central role in how future biological and chemical analyses are performed. With our ideas on miniaturization, automation and user-friendliness, I’m sure that the technology will continue to serve the next generation of scientists."

Our vision was to refine and improve the technology we had until it could become a stellar commercial product. Today, our innovation provides significant improvements for separation and analysis of complex biological samples. - Paul Jacobs, PharmaFluidics
 

You’ve really come full-circle, from scientist to innovator and finally businessman. Has it been a good journey?

"Absolutely! It’s as if you’re living a dream: I’ve had the chance to go from researcher to developing a technology that helps other scientists conduct their research.

I’m so glad that we took the opportunity, showed the initiative and just went for it. We managed to engage a number of value-adding investors and, with their continuing support, keep on developing the company further. And look how far it’s come! I am so grateful to be a part of this ongoing journey."

This BioVox article was sponsored by PharmaFluidics and was based on an interview conducted by SelectScience. Click here for more information on our sponsored articles and other BioVox services.

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