July 23, 2008

Fluidigm CEO’s Testing Devices Help the Salmon He Once Fished

Maybe it's a little silly to compare Fluidigm Chief Executive Gajus Worthington to the salmon he grew up catching in Alaska.

The same salmon that would leave home to make a long and circuitous trip just to end up back where they started.

Worthington, after all, hasn't literally wound up back in Alaska. He's still toiling at his 140-person start-up in South San Francisco _ a company that makes a tiny device that he says will revolutionize all manner of biological testing.

But after leaving Alaska to study at Stanford University, Worthington, 38, finds himself on his own unpredictable journey. And in a way, he is back in Alaska. Or at least his company's BioMark system is _ helping biologists protect the state's salmon fishery and its commercial fishing business at the same time.

"I used to fish those rivers as a kid," Worthington says of the streams that empty into Alaska's huge bays. "It's very satisfying to me to know our technology is actually helping some of my old friends make sure their livelihood is OK."

Worthington represents what's wonderful about Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs come from all over, from all kinds of backgrounds. But they all head for the same place: the cutting-edge.

Worthington's 9-year-old company has come up with a 1 \-inch-square silicone _ not silicon _ device that contains hundreds of thousands of rubber channels, valves and reaction chambers.

Think of it as an integrated circuit for fluids.

Instead of moving electric currents along intricate paths, it moves liquid, precisely mixing tiny biological samples with chemical agents that yield results for gene analysis, disease detection and other biological tests.

The technology's promise is to replace biolabs full of test tubes, pipettes, machines and robots with a desktop device that will conduct tests faster and more cheaply than current systems.

A number of pharmaceutical and university labs are using Fluidigm's devices. And, of course, so is Alaska, which last year used Fluidigm chips to examine the genes of tens of thousands of salmon returning to swim up Alaska's rivers.

Researchers used gene testing to determine which fish would be returning to which of the state's many spawning grounds. That information allowed state officials to direct commercial fishers to abundant fish runs while steering them away from those at risk of being depleted by overfishing.

Which gets us back to Worthington's fish story. When he was 4, his father moved the family of 10 from Albuquerque, N.M., to Chugiak, Alaska.

"He wanted to go to the edge, the frontier," Worthington says. "We more or less lived off the land."

Yes, off the land _ growing their own vegetables, hunting moose in the back yard and fishing.

Serious fishing. In the summertime, the Worthingtons boarded their commercial fishing boat and headed into the Cook Inlet to chase salmon.

"It's just back-breaking toil and long hours, and you're completely controlled by the tides," says Bob Worthington, Gajus' (pronounced GUY-us) father. "It's also dangerous, of course. You have many, many unforeseen problems. You're going along and everything is just fine and you've got a plan and all the sudden you're fighting for your life."

Back-breaking, dangerous, fighting for your life. Sounds like the perfect preparation for a start-up.

And Fluidigm has encountered some squalls. (Couldn't resist.) A competitor is suing for patent infringement, which Fluidigm denies. And it's headed for uncharted waters. (Sorry.) The company has filed the paperwork for an IPO seeking to raise $86 million. No date has been set.

No one knows how all that will shake out. But Worthington can always hope his days chasing the salmon in Alaska have him prepared no matter how rough the seas ahead.


(Mike Cassidy is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Read his Loose Ends blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/Cassidy and contact him at [email protected] or (408) 920-5536.)


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