On the world market with DNA labels
ETH researchers Michela Puddu and Gediminas Mikutis founded the company Haelixa in early summer. The company commercializes DNA-based tracers, which are more robust than ever before, for tracking fluids and products. The young entrepreneurs are now looking to enter the oil and geothermal sector.
In many branches of industry, tracers are used to monitor fluids and leaks, or to track products. Particularly in the energy sector, tracer field-operations are the only direct means of characterizing and monitoring oil or geothermal reservoirs by tracking the movement of fluids in the subsurface (now a $350 Mio market). Such operations consist of injecting tracers under the ground, and then sampling and analysing them at the surface. The information derived is used to decide where to drill future wells, and to plan intervention operations to minimize running costs and maximize oil recovery or geothermal power extraction.
The main drawbacks of currently available chemical tracers are the small number of distinct “fingerprints” available, which hinders a complete assessment of an underground reservoir; and their toxicity. Haelixa technology is a green solution which takes reservoir description to the next level, thanks to a new class of tracers composed of DNA sequences encapsulated within extremely small (100 nm), invisible silica particles. Using these tracers, underground resources can be better exploited, and associated costs and risks reduced.
Haelixa’s technology does not serve the oil and geothermal industry alone: the label can also be used to detect leaks in pipelines or canals (e.g. fracking sites, wastewater plants) and to label or identify raw materials or finite products (e.g. fuels, cosmetics).This makes it possible to spot counterfeits, illicit trafficking or stolen goods. “Our technology fills a major gap,” asserts CEO Michela Puddu.
Unique DNA-labelled product
To label these goods, Haelixa uses a short piece of DNA. To protect it from degradation, the researchers encapsulate the DNA molecule in a tiny, nanometre-sized grain of silica. In this way, the DNA can remain intact for a long time and withstand temperatures of more than 100 °C.
The DNA works like a barcode. With the four DNA building blocks, assembled in the laboratory into a sequence of 100 or more building blocks, any desired combination of barcodes can be produced. This means that every barrel of oil and every single delivery can be marked individually. Only a few silica particles are needed to label a liquid: just one nanogram per litre.
Focus on the oil sector
Haelixa offers more than just labels: the company also takes samples, separates the silica particles and deciphers the DNA contained therein. To accomplish this, the silica shell has to be dissolved with a weak acid; the researchers can then analyse the DNA, building block by building block. “We offer a whole package, including analytic service, data processing and customer support, not just tracers,” emphasises Puddu.
In a first step, they want to tap into the oil sector. And yet entry into this market is no easy feat. “We need major partners because this is a conservative market,” says Puddu. They are therefore looking for such partners and have already held initial talks. Currently, oil producers label their products with chemical substances, some of which are highly toxic – and only a few different tracers exist. But Haelixa offers a vast choice of tracers that are far more environmentally friendly.
Spin-off rooted in ETH Zurich
The spin-off has its origins in a group led by ETH Professor Wendelin Stark, where Puddu and her college Gediminas Mikutis worked on this technology during their PhD – and recognised its market potential. They teamed up a year ago to establish Haelixa, put together business plans and give the company a face; even competing successfully in »venture» 2015, Venture Kick, and the RSC Emerging Technologies Competition 2016. In mid-May this year, they founded Haelixa as a GmbH and have just received the official ETH spin-off label.
Puddu, who received her PhD in 2015, dedicates all her time and creativity to building up the company, for which she has also received a Pioneer Fellowship from ETH Zurich. Mikutis co-invented the technology and is responsible for its further development as Chief Technical Officer. He is still a PhD student and is doing a great job in managing his PhD and his role within the company.
Developing the company in the incubator
Haelixa occupies offices and laboratories in ETH’s ieLab, which acts as an incubator for start-ups, a place where ideas can mature and be made marketable. Puddu and Mikutis can continue here for the time being, and they are happy to have access to this facility and the Pioneer Fellowship.
Puddu does not regret having consciously left an academic career and taken this path. “I'm currently doing many different things in our company – from product development to negotiations with corporate partners and clients, and marketing,” she says. And she finds this both interesting and exciting: “I learn something different each day and there’s always a new challenge.”