Innovative use of thermoplastics in microfluidic prototyping service

FlowJEM founders Eugenia Kumacheva and Jesse Greener

The Canadian company, FlowJEM, develops what are in essence tiny chemistry laboratories: coaster-sized plastic wafers with miniature channels, pools and embedded probes. The prototyping technology arose from a large body of lab-on-a-chip research performed by Dr. Eugenia Kumacheva’s Polymers, Interfaces, and Materials Science Group at the University of Toronto. Dr. Jesse Greener, her former post-doctoral research associate, is the co-founder and CEO of FlowJEM, as well as a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Université Laval in Québec City. 

FlowJEM offers customized devices in a range of different thermoplastic materials based on chemical compatibility, optical transparency and temperature stability. With the help of CMC Microsystems, the new company is building a lab-on-a-chip manufacturing service that it hopes will appeal to researchers and engineers who now make their own devices. Additional potential customers are the many researchers who want to use microfluidics but are not experts in the field and encounter the expensive and time-consuming task of fabricating their own chips.

Kumacheva and Greener tested a wide variety of materials and methods to develop an efficient way to fabricate the stamps that are used to imprint micro-channels—with a minimum channel width of 20 microns—and other features into the plastic chips. These features replace the beakers and pipettes used in conventional benchtop experiments in a lab. Both chemical reactions and biological processes can be studied in microfluidic chips using microscopy and other analytical techniques.

Experiments conducted on lab-on-a-chip devices can speed up protracted work and allow for more precise measurements. They are also more environmentally friendly and cost-effective because they reduce waste and require smaller amounts of rare or expensive reagents than conventional experiments. Kumacheva uses them to test how carbon dioxide reacts with a variety of liquids. Other researchers use them to assess the properties of potential new drugs.

“Using the custom thermoplastic devices developed by FlowJEM can be much faster and more efficient than making or purchasing a lab-on-a-chip in a conventional way,” says Kumacheva. It can cost several thousands of dollars for academic labs to make their own stamps and the process can take months, according to Dr. Kumacheva. Also, many researchers rely on suppliers who fabricate standard designs in glass or silicon. Custom designs are far more expensive in these materials.

“FlowJEM enters the market by offering low-cost solutions; the cost per device is just a fraction of what suppliers in glass or silicon charge, and there are further discounts available through CMC Microsystems,” says CEO Dr. Greener. “Most of all, we offer rapid turnaround—just two weeks after the order is received we will have the prototype out the door. We also help with consultation services on designing with CAD software. All this keeps researchers working with the microfluidic devices, not developing them.”

The company’s microfluidic device fabrication begins with the rapid generation of a robust imprint template. The features are transferred to a thermoplastic device by hot embossing and then sealed. The final product is durable over a wide range of pressures, temperatures, and flow rates. The durability of FlowJEM’s imprint templates allows them to be used to fabricate a large number of embossed devices with high feature fidelity.

CMC has helped the company to develop the technology and assess potential markets. It has also attracted clients to test the chips and offer feedback. “They have helped us so much. I don’t think we would have survived those early days without them,” says Kumacheva. The technology is now a regular offering in CMC’s fabrication portfolio where it is promoted to academics for proof-of-concept work.

FlowJEM plans to establish itself with the research community and then expand into the private sector. This will require producing far larger quantities of chips. One of CMC’s engineers is working with FlowJEM on the process of scaling up its production without sacrificing quality. Substantial funding assistance has been received from the Ontario Centres of Excellence Market Readiness program to further the technological research and development needed to make greater inroads into the growing Life Sciences market.

“While we are ramping up our ability to service larger orders, we are working in the small-to-medium volume markets. There are plenty of customers in the academic world who need this service right away,” states Greener.

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