For cellular imaging platform company PhenoVista Biosciences, pictures of cells are worth many thousands of words.
“We like imaging because you get a real qualitative sense [of the cell] and not just quantitative. You can actually see what’s going on in the images,” said James Evans, CEO and co-founder of PhenoVista Biosciences. “The bar is really high with images because getting good images is really hard.”
Last month, PhenoVista’s ability to reach that high bar was validated with an investment from FUJIFILM Corporation’s Life Sciences Corporate Venture Capital (LS-CVC) fund. Launched in February 2022, LS-CVC is a newly established group within Fujifilm’s Life Sciences Strategy Headquarters in Tokyo. Fujifilm is initially investing 7B¥ (about $50 million) to start the fund, targeting cutting-edge biotechnology primarily through partnerships with early-stage companies around the world.
“Fujifilm is committed to solving societal issues through the creation of new values from the alignment with partners that offer technological capabilities for a strategic fit with our life sciences portfolio,” said Takatoshi Ishikawa, general manager of Life Sciences Strategy Headquarters, FUJIFILM Corporation.
The amount of the investment in PhenoVista from the fund was undisclosed.
“It’s a really big deal for us. It’s like a blue-chip endorsement of what [we] started eight years ago,” Evans said.
Evans and co-founder and Chief Science Officer Anthony Essex started PheoVista with the goal of building a cell imaging platform for the emerging stem cell drugs and therapeutics industry.
“What PhenoVista started off doing was providing a service where we took these cells and grew them in microwells and then used these robot microscopes to take images of these cells and then pull out metrics from these images using machine learning, AI – current computational techniques – to discriminate between healthy neurons and diseased neurons,” Evans said.
From the start, PhenoVista used cells provided by Fujifilm, which had entered the cell manufacturing industry following the 2015 acquisition of Wisconsin-based Cellular Dynamics, Inc. (CDI). FUJI’s interest in CDI stemmed from the fact that photographic film was made on collagen plates and “guess what stem cells like to grow on?” Evans said.
“Since then, Fujifilm has had an extensive presence in manufacturing they have a big site up in Irvine,” he continued. “They’re heavily invested in life sciences and particularly the industrialization.”
Fujifilm’s investment in PhenoVista will accelerate the development of new high-content screening (HCS) assay services using FUJIFILM iCell differentiated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) made by FUJIFILM CDI and PhenoVista’s cutting-edge imaging technologies.
The investment builds upon the existing strategic alliance initiated in 2021 between FUJIFILM CDI and PhenoVista to expand drug-discovery by collaboratively developing high-content, imaging-based assays using human iPSC-derived differentiated cells. These HCS assay services using iPSCs are capable of monitoring complex intracellular functions, such as cell health, mitochondrial health and synapse formation in individual human cells that are involved in disease progression, supporting pharmaceutical companies in their drug-discovery processes.
“Fujifilm brings a wealth of expertise in imaging to the life sciences arena, and in collaboration with PhenoVista, will continue to help our shared customers with their efficient drug-discovery processes through the combination of highly relevant, human cell types and powerful HCS capabilities and experience,” said Tomoyuki Hasegawa, president and CEO, FUJIFILM Cellular Dynamics, Inc.
Evans said the investment from Fugifilm will be used to develop new applications for the PhenoVista platforms such as cardio toxicology.
“Another really exciting area that we’re moving forward in, in terms of what we’ll being doing with the investment, is called cell painting,” he said. “It’s essentially where you put these dyes on cells that light up all the landmarks in cells – where the DNA is, where the engines of the cells are the mitochondria and the shape of the cells, and it gives you a very unbiased picture of how the cells are affected by different drugs.”
PhenoVista’s “deepening relationship” with Fujifilm also means that its current and future partners and collaborators will have early access to Fujifilm’s new cell models. Those partners and collaborators include “90% of big pharma companies globally,” Evans said, adding that its reach into large pharma companies came as a surprise top him and his co-founder because those companies usually have their own imaging teams.
The initial business model, he said, was to provide service to smaller companies who cannot afford the expensive imaging instruments and experts to run them. However, within three to four months of operations, PhenoVista had already begun working with big pharma companies.
“They still came to us because we’re experts in this area and we take on projects that are really difficult,” Evans said. “In our pitch deck, our opening line is ‘We do difficult.’”
CEO: James Evans
Headquarters: Sorrento Valley
Business: Provider of disease-relevant cell-based assay services
Notable: PhenoVista provides imaging services for 90% of big pharma companies globally.