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Atonarp Using $33M Funding Round to Move Into Clinical Diagnostic Market

By Adam Bonislawski, GenomeWeb NEW YORK, August 29, 2019

With an influx of new funding, instrument vendor Atonarp is shifting its focus to its optical spectroscopy and clinical diagnostics business.

The Tokyo-based company announced this week that it closed a $33 million Series C funding round. According to Atonarp COO Dave Anderson, the firm plans to use the funds to support its existing mass spectrometry businesses, which primarily targets industrial and process control markets, and develop its nonlinear optical spectroscopy technology for biosensing and imaging applications.

Anderson said the company is currently working with “three large medical companies,” which he declined to identify, to develop applications for the technology with an emphasis on streamlining and automating it to make it easily accessible for non-expert users.

Broadly speaking, nonlinear optics refers to conditions in which excitation of a substance by a light source generates a nonlinear signal.

“In a linear signal, for instance, if you excite something and you get an emission, that emission might be linear with either the concentration of something [in the sample] or with the intensity [of the light source],” Anderson said. “With nonlinear optics you end up with second- and third-order relationships where you can get a much stronger signal.”

That allows for more sensitive measurements of target analytes, but Anderson said, the approach requires very precise control of instrument components.

“That is where we thought we could bring some value,” he said. “Our vision is, what if you can just put this [technology] into a small box and make it accessible to [researchers] so they can essentially have a system [that] works automatically and is very simply to use where they don’t need specialists and an elaborate equipment setup.”

In addition to being highly sensitive, nonlinear optical approaches are label-free, which means they don’t necessarily require the addition of enzymes or other reagents commonly used in biosensing applications, though Anderson noted that they can be added in cases where additional specificity or sensitivity is desired.

He declined to say what specific applications Atonarp was focused on, citing the confidentially of its agreements with its medical company partners, but noted that these partners are particularly interested in clinical point-of-care applications.

In addition to its partnerships, the company is working on internal projects focused primarily on developing the technology’s imaging applications. The plan, Anderson said, is to combine multiple optical approaches with AI-based data analysis.

He cited diagnosis of melanoma as an example of an area well-suited to the technology.

“There are a couple of [optical] technologies that have been explored by researchers separately in melanoma,” he said. “There have been papers using as standalones each one of the technologies that we have together. This platform enables us to look at [specimens] using multiple of those [optical] tools, so we’d be able to get all of that data simultaneously.”

Among the optical techniques Atonarp is exploring are coherent anti-Stokes raman spectroscopy (CARS) and optical coherence tomography (OCT). The latter technology has seen substantial clinical uptake in recent years, particularly in ophthalmology, where it is used for assessing various retinal conditions, and in cardiology and dermatology. More than a dozen companies manufacture OCT systems for clinical and research use.

Research is active in other areas of nonlinear optics, as well. Last year, for instance, a team led by Stephen Boppart, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois and an expert in biophotonics, developed a label-free tissue imaging approach called SLAM (simultaneous label-free autofluorescence-multiharmonic) microscopy that the researchers have used in operating rooms for analysis of breast tissue removed during tumor surgery.

Boppart said in an interview last year that his lab planned to launch a company to commercialize the technology.

Anderson said that Atonarp plans in the next few months to deliver fully automated prototypes of its optical spectroscopy systems to its partners. He added that over the next year and a half the company plans to make hires that will help it set up a more traditional manufacturing process for the systems, which he said are currently being built in house and on a small scale by company scientists and engineers.