Formulatrix: Liquid Handling

Microfluidics is not only useful in applications ranging from process chemistry to cell sorting, but is also a way to enter an established instrument market. Formulatrix began as a provider of the Rock Maker protein crystallography imaging system. The company has had 60% average growth in revenue since its start in 2002. It entered the liquid handling market in 2008 with its microfluidic-based system, the Formulator. The company currently has 30 employees working on R&D and multiple manufacturing facilities in Asia.

Although adding a liquid handling system to a product line consisting of protein crystallography imaging systems is not necessarily an unconventional move, the company was pushed to enter this particular market due to competition. According to Jeremy Stevenson, president and CEO of Formulatrix, “we were using off-the-shelf liquid handlers that were working well, but were not optimized for dispensing viscous liquids. Our biggest competitor came out with their own liquid handler that was optimized for viscous liquids.” The company decided that offering a microfluidic liquid handler would set them apart in such a large market. According to Mr. Stevenson, Formulatrix is the first company to build liquid handling instruments using microfluidics. The company will release the Tempest, its microfluidic liquid handler for low-viscosity liquids, in the third quarter.

Formulatrix’s liquid handling products accounted for 10% of revenue in 2008, which the company expects to grow to 30% by the end of 2009. The heart of the Formulator is a cyclic olefin copolymer microfluidic chip with silicone valve clusters. Reagents are pumped into the chip, which uses positive displacement to dispense the reagents in parallel into a microwell plate positioned on a stage underneath the chip. The Formulator’s microfluidic chip is the size of a standard microplate and accommodates 96 pumps and 500 valves. Different Formulator models allow for 16 or 32 inputs, with individually controlled micropumps able to dispense the reagents based on their viscosity. According to Mr. Stevenson, Formulatrix’s micropumps are significantly more reliable than the solenoid valves that many competitors use to pulse out drops of pressurized liquid. “Market feedback is that these solenoids have a very limited lifetime, need to be constantly monitored for failure, and need to be replaced as much as once a month.” The lower limit on volume dispensed by the Formulator is 200 nL, and it can fill a 100 µl, three-ingredient, 96-well grid in 60 seconds. Popular applications for the Formulator are protein crystallography, assay development and cell culture.

Because the Formulator handles liquids with high viscosities, its microfluidic chip is built with wide channels and nozzle bores. Drawbacks of this design are a dead volume of 7 mL and separation problems from the pump nozzle for small drops. The Tempest will have a dead volume of 100 µl. According to Mr. Stevenson, unlike the Formulator, the Tempest’s capability to dispense smaller drops faster allows for what Mr. Stevenson calls dispensing on the fly. “A 1536-well plate can be filled with a single reagent in under 16 seconds. We’re seeing very large demand for this product before it has even been released to the market, mostly for high-throughput screening and assay development,” he said.

< | >