Oulu Bioscience Networking Event 2020 (OBNE20) has been replaced by a blog series which highlights Innovative interdisciplinary research activities in Oulu. Enjoy!
When thinking of cell cultures, most of us visualize petri dishes with red solution. The image is accurate, however, as all things evolve in time, so does traditional cell culturing. Microtechnology is pushing the boundaries on how we culture cells and perform experiments. Microfluidics and microtechnology in their basic form attempt to combine biology with engineering by producing microchips that can be used in culturing cells and conducting experiments in a smaller scale. In this interview, we shed light on what microtechnology is, how microchips work and the person behind manufacturing them – Prateek Singh.
Prateek Singh, the founder of Finnadvance, was born in India, and has studied and lived in Europe for over 10 years. He holds degrees as an engineer in biotechnology and a master’s degree in biochemistry and protein science. Most of his work on his master’s thesis was done in Zürich, Switzerland, where his fascination for microtechnology was sparked.
“It was a hobby, something to do in the weekends“
Prateek started pursuing his interest in microtechnology where most innovations usually start – his home. “I have a lot of science equipment at home: microscopes, telescopes and such, so I started experimenting on chips. It was a hobby, something to do on the weekends”, he explains. Much of the time went on studying and figuring out how the technology works. The idea of making a hobby into business was molded in 2018, and the company needed a name. “I wanted to advance technology, and I was located in Finland, so… Finnadvance. I didn’t think too much about it.”, Prateek laughs. The company got funded by the EU Horizon 2020, which is the biggest innovation and research innovation program in Europe, in collaboration with Oulu University professor Lauri Eklund for studying vasculature formation. Not only has Finnadvance reaped the impressive EU grant, but also won the Tech Start-up 2019 prize in Cologne. Funding was secured.
However, there was one problem: how and where to start manufacturing the chips? The Kontinkangas campus in Oulu proved to be the most suited place for their needs, because of the laboratory infrastructure already available. “When we secured the EU funding, we only had an office, not even a lab yet” Prateek explains. One-man company now has the lab space needed for producing their chips, and the company has grown to employ nine people in total. Prateek acts as the technological lead running the projects and Jari Moilanen as Chief Operating Officer managing the everyday company life.
What then makes microchips so special when it comes to cell cultures, and why traditional petri dishes are sometimes not good enough? It has been known for a long time that cells are not in their native environment when cultured on a stable plastic surface that a petri dish offers. Culture environment affects how cells take up chemical substances or viruses and cells have different conditions where they thrive. Some cells are under constant mechanical stress, others would prefer to be in close proximity with other cells and grow in clumps, while others would prefer to stay still in a soft environment. A traditional monolayer cell culture cannot emulate the environment well enough for the cells to grow and perform in an optimal manner.
This is where the mechanical properties of microchips come into play. Microchips are made of medical grade silicone, and the surface of the chip can be modified to make it soft, hard or something in between. The chips have tunnels that can be used to inject cells, change media and take samples. As the name suggests, in microchip technology we deal with small volumes. The total given volume in a chip including the cells and media hardly exceeds 50 microliters. Small volumes bring both benefits and challenges, as liquids in general behave differently in micro and macro quantities. Chips don’t necessarily have a set form – It can be custom made for each cell type and an experimental setup the customer desires. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
“The most important part for the company is to have a great team.”
The company itself is brand new but has already customers throughout Europe. What will the future hold for Finnadvance? “We are thinking of expanding to bioprinting services and biofabrication on demand. Microfluidics could also be utilized in different areas than cell culturing, protein crystallization being one example.” Prateek visualizes. The company currently has a strong expertise in the process of manufacturing microchips and custom fabrication of the chip and the leap to expand to bioprinting is a small one. Prateek would like to invest more in automation in both manufacturing processes as well as data and image analysis. “The most important part for the company is to have a great team. For myself it is important to advance technology, but as a CEO, I want to take care of the people working here. The people need to come first” he says.
– Interview by Riikka Halmetoja
Image of Prateek Singh by Ari-Pekka Kvist
Image of bioprinted ECM by Finnadvance