Interview conducted by Kal Kaur
Lee Jeffries, Chief Operating Officer at Dolomite Centre Ltd talks to AZoNano about microfluidic solutions.
KK - Can you provide me with a summary of your microfluidic solutions?
LJ - Dolomite started at the beginning of March 2006. It came about as a result of what was then the Department of Trade and Industry’s Micro and Nanotechnology Manufacturing Initiative. This was a fund set up by the Science Minister Lord Sainsbury.
He wanted to fund some centres in the U.K. that were requesting financial investment in the field of micro- and nanotechnology. There was a clear desire to fund a Microfluidic Application Centre and so Dolomite was created to become just that, and succeeded in gaining £3 million of grant investment. Dolomite’s name is an acronym of Design-led Microfluidics Technology.
Today, Dolomite is part of The Blacktrace Group of companies. The Group is focused on Productizing Science®, which means creating commercially successful and marketable products from scientific discovery.
Specifically, Dolomite is the Group’s microfluidics brand which seeks to commercialise excellent microfluidic products.
Dolomite is a world leader in Productizing Science® and an innovator in creating microfluidic devices & solutions. We sell the coolest microfluidic products around the world, with and without partners.
We comprise specialist engineering teams focused on mechanical & product design, software, mechatronics, electronics and system integration. We also have world class microfabrication & electro-mechanical manufacturing capabilities.
Dolomite designs & manufactures a wide range of world leading standard components such as microfluidic connectors & interfaces, chips, pumps, valves, detectors, sensors, and accessories. We also offer complete modular systems, which have multiple functionalities, diversification, user-friendly design, and flexibility.
By Productizing Science®, Dolomite can help turn concept into reality with better integrated hardware and software, enabling complete instrumentation solutions which constantly exceed expectations.
Dolomite is regarded as a global “centre of excellence” for the design, development, prototyping and manufacture of microfluidic solutions. We are unique in our service offering.
Although we do have competitors in some areas of our business and production processes - for example in the area of microfluidic chips and microfluidic pumps - Dolomite is unique as a one-stop shop for microfluidic solutions offering everything from single standard components through to customised devices, complex microfluidic systems and product development services.
KK - What are the main microfluidic solutions and can you give a brief summary on each one?
LJ – Our website and catalogue is the best source of information. We also have a web shop to support this platform.
We have systems solutions that we design and manufacture and we have product development solutions where we build bespoke products for external partners (these are at the very top of the range). This system could be an instrument or it could be a combination of components aimed at a specific application.
Our team of design engineers has many years of experience in modelling, designing and testing microfluidic devices for a range of applications including micro-reactors, DNA analysis, droplet generation and environmental analysis. For example, from an external partner collaboration, we have made a cancer screening system that utilises microfluidics.
We also have a protein crystallisation instrument for commercial partners who simply rebadge them and sell them to end-users in their specific market place. We have a pretty great track record so far of exceeding our partners’ expectations in terms of the performance of these systems, across a whole range of applications.
The solutions that we consider to be more standard, component-based solutions built around Dolomite's industry leading microfluidic products, provide a complete solution focused at specific applications. These include connectors, interfaces, microfluidic pumps, microfluidic devices, and microfluidic chips, optical systems and temperature systems.
Thanks to their modularity, Dolomite's System Solutions are easily expandable, easy to set up and operate, and cost effective. Because the components in the system can be used individually, our systems are also very flexible, typically offering multiple functionalities from each system.
The types of systems available include nanoparticle synthesis, advanced droplet generation, and pressure driven control flow systems.
Dolomite’s Microfluidic consultancy division works with customers around the world to develop a variety of versatile, complex and cutting-edge custom devices, all available in exceptionally short lead times.
KK - Who are your customers and what are your main fields of application for your services?
LJ - Our customer base is quite vast in terms of application areas, but the prominent ones are pharmaceutical, life sciences, petrochemical, food & beverage, and genomics. Anybody traditionally using fluidics will probably have some interest in converting to the micro scale.
KK - Can you discuss in more detail how Dolomite customises its microfluidic devices?
LJ - As stated above, we have world class engineering teams and manufacturing capabilities. Offering standard component solutions means that the barrier of entry into microfluidics has been significantly reduced as these components are generally low-cost. Therefore, it gives the opportunity for a customer to perhaps prove a concept in a cost-efficient manner, and then move to the next stage of requesting a specific solution which is customised specifically for them.
We will consult with them to fully understand their problem and application, and then advise accordingly on the best solution to meet their needs. This could be a custom microfluidic chip and connector, which would be a single phase project approach delivering a complete solution within a few weeks.
The point of this is that once we’ve designed our standard product componentry, what we wanted to do was to lower the barrier of entry for people wanting to get involved in microfluidics – to get people using microfluidics.
The purpose of the standard product range is to lower the barrier of entry because we’ve already invested in the process of development and the design costs, which means that a customer can go to our design web-shop and, instead of spending £5000 with us, they can buy a standard chip and a standard connector and walk away having invested in no more than £500-600.
Alternatively, this might be a full microfluidic instrument which will be a multi-phase, stage gate, project approach starting with a quick concept & feasibility study, and then to a second phase involving a design and specification phase, followed by an alpha then a beta prototype, much longer stages, before embarking on full production. Our time-to-market is still just a few months, which is a major attraction of Dolomite.
KK - What are the advantages of microfluidics?
LJ - There are many benefits to microfluidics including:
Ease of use
Reduced sample volumes and reagent consumption
Reduced reaction times
Higher data quality
Improved automation and integration
KK - What type of small-scale fluid control and analysis techniques will benefit from the use of microfluidic devices?
LJ - Converting to microfluidics is the fundamental part. Dolomite enhances this process because of its knowledge base. Converting to the micro-scale, ironically, is having macro-scale solutions. The main techniques that benefit from the use of microfluidic devices include:
KK - How do you keep ahead of the market?
LJ - Dolomite is focused only on microfluidics. We are not distracted by anything else!
In terms of productising science in microfluidics, it is fair to say that we do not have one single direct competitor that is working with partners. Also, our partners are very important to us in terms of keeping on top of the market.
Microfluidics covers an extremely broad market space and so we can’t possibly rely on having an internal resource for everything. Therefore, we work with key strategic partners to design, manufacture and distribute high quality microfluidic solutions.
We have brand partners which are companies with strength in applications and users in a specific market giving Dolomite access to otherwise unknown customers.
We also have Intellectual Propert (IP) & Technology Partners (organisations with IP and/or technology) that Dolomite can utilise and create products from, which would otherwise not be possible. On top of all that, we also have distributors with geographically localised sales teams giving Dolomite a more cost-effective global footprint.
Moreover, we have distribution arrangements with partners who know that they cannot themselves, or would struggle to, sell their technology & products into the microfluidics market. Given Dolomite is already synonymous with the microfluidics market; they prefer to collaborate with us in order to achieve higher sales.
KK - Are there any recent discoveries that will open up new areas of application for microfluidics?
LJ - This is happening constantly. The subject areas in Q6 are evolving regularly. Dolomite will not seek itself to make these discoveries, but we will collaborate with those people who want to productize their discovery. We provide the tools and solutions for our customers to make these discoveries in science.
KK - How has form factor and cost affected the MEMS device market size and how has Dolomite adapted to the changes that are starting to progress through this sector?
LJ - Dolomite has been at the forefront of standardisation for several years, but microfluidic device manufacture isn’t anywhere near the electronics industry, for example.
There needs to be a focused approach between microfluidics manufacturers, integrators and end-users in order to develop the concept of standardisation specifically in microfluidics.
KK - What other areas of application do you expect to most benefit from microfluidics?
LJ - The main ones have been stated and will continue to develop. More people in the same market spaces in terms of food and beverages, life sciences and pharmaceuticals etc., will use this solution.
Slightly related, microfluidics (as well as requiring standardisation), will also need to be more attainable for the education & academia sectors. Dolomite is working on new product concepts directly linked to this subject space.
KK - Microfluidics could potentially replace traditional laborious lab equipment with a simple solution. How do you see microfluidics expanding in its current market area and how will this affect the costs involved in the biomedical device market?
LJ - Microfluidics is replacing traditional laborious lab equipment with simpler solutions! Dolomite is already working on its own simple plug-and-play modular systems with a view to drastically reducing costs for such equipment. For example, building block plug-and-play systems that can be used by schools, universities, research houses, there’s still no standard solutions for microfluidics and Dolomite has certainly taken standardisation in microfluidics very far over recent years.
As already stated, the concept of standardisation must prevail in order to reduce costs further (as seen in the electronics industry).
KK - How will microfluidics change the field of drug discovery and development?
LJ - It’s already changing the field of drug discovery and development. Microfluidics is an ideal ‘tool’ for increasing productivity and throughput in drug discovery.
The aspect of miniaturising synthesis, analysis and testing is very important. Moreover, parallel productions and nanoscale volume manipulations will promote efficiency and cut the cost of drug discovery.
KK - What are the unmet needs in this market and how will microfluidics plan on developing solutions for these needs?
LJ - From our point of view, the unmet needs are to make it more available and standardizing this tool. We are focusing our efforts on a standardized plug-and-play platform of using microfluidics. We are also focusing on our own standard architecture that we can sell.
We have standard systems and standard components, but what we are working on over the next two to three years is a standalone microfluidic plug-and-play system, which has taken up a lot of our roadmaps and new product developments, it’s taken up a lot of engineering resource.
KK - So you’re focusing more on how to standardize your product?
LJ - Yes, and we have our own standard architecture that we can sell. However, as stated, standardisation must happen across the microfluidics industry. In particular, Dolomite has focused mainly on the common standardisation of interconnects.
Dolomite has introduced Multiflux®, a new open standard changing the world for microfluidic connections. Our Multiflux® connectors and interfaces are designed to be easily integrated into other systems helping solve interconnection challenges. All Multiflux® components can be used in a number of ways:
using a 3rd party microfluidic chip,
using a 3rd party own microfluidic chip and interface,
to create tube-to-tube connections,
as an off-the-shelf solution, ready to go.
Moreover, Dolomite won a grant last year from the Technology Strategy Board, to create a plug-and-play microfluidic system. For example, a press release titled “Dolomite given smart award” for development of ‘plug and play’ microfluidic system reflects how this work has taken up a lot of roadmaps in new product development. It consists of a suite of integrated tools and software from microfluidic uses.
KK – Where can we find further information?
LJ – For further information readers can either go to our main website or they can download our product catalogue.
About Lee Jeffries
Lee Jeffries is the Chief Operating Officer of The Dolomite Centre Limited. Lee is responsible for the Dolomite brand in the Blacktrace Group of companies, and presides over the Dolomite Management Team.
After leaving university in 1995, Lee was in charge of operations at his family business specialising in the manufacture of precision glass & silica components, as well as the design and assembly of silica process machinery.
The company also operated a specialist manufacturing service for assemblies used in analytical instruments. Following this, Lee moved into the microfluidics industry as Operations Manager for a new microfluidics start-up, and later joined The Dolomite Centre Limited as Head of Operations after it had won its £2m award under the DTI’s Micro & Nano Technology Manufacturing Initiative. Dolomite is the world’s first Microfluidic Application Centre. In January 2013, Lee became the Chief Operating Officer of Dolomite.