Fluid Imaging Technologies’ FlowCAM (flow cytometer and microscope) is a unique product with considerable potential. The company, located in Yarmouth, Maine, grew out of founder Chris Sieracki’s work at Bigelow Laboratories for Oceanographic Sciences. The FlowCAM was first developed in 1996 and the company was started in 1999.
For oceanographers, the FlowCAM offers a number of benefits. For example, its imaging capability allows users to avoid the tedious process of manual cell counting. As Lew Brown, director of marketing at Fluid Imaging Technologies, explained, the FlowCAM’s capabilities for oceanographic research make “competition pretty minimal: people either want and need a FlowCAM or they don’t.” But, he added that this research depends primarily on government grants, so sales to the market can be slow. Over the past four years, Fluid Imaging Technologies has been trying to improve sales to industrial customers, but this year “the ocean and lakes business accounts for two times” industrial sales, according to Mr. Brown. However, industrial sales have doubled annually over the past three years and should match oceanographic sales by next year and overtake them by 2009.
One challenge involved in bringing the FlowCAM to industrial end-users is developing a “sampling protocol” for various products. For example, a sample containing a high percentage of solids needs to be diluted for the FlowCAM to distinguish individual particles in it. Once this protocol has been established, the technique is “highly repeatable,” as Mr. Brown said. He added that the FlowCAM allows its users to know the precise shape of a given sample’s particles, while competing particle analysis technologies, such as laser diffraction and electrozone sensing, assume particles to be spherical. However, Mr. Brown explained that for many industrial customers, the FlowCAM’s imaging capabilities are complementary to such techniques as automated laser diffraction, and said that most of the company’s sales representatives also handle laser diffraction systems.
Current industrial end-users include Chevron-Texaco, Eastman Chemicals and Welch’s. The company is also exploring applications in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly related to process analytical technology. For most industrial end-users, the FlowCAM’s flow cytometry capabilities are not needed, so Fluid Imaging Technologies offers a $40,000 version of the FlowCAM without the flow cytometer (the high-end model costs $75,000–$80,000). An application that lies close to the FlowCAM’s origins may offer significant revenues as well. Labs such as the Naval Research Laboratory are using FlowCAMs to study invasive species that can be brought into ports in ships’ ballast water and damage local ecosystems; potential regulations resulting from this research might increase sales.
The company also produces VisualSpreadsheet software, which organizes data using particle shape as a sorting principle. Using a set of images from a sample run, the software can find other particles in the sample array that match the same criteria. Particle libraries can also be created, allowing users to test for specific concentration levels. This technique is used by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to monitor algae in the Boston area’s water supply.