Research and Development (R&D) has been a key part of SPT Labtech (SPTL) since its earlier days as a member of the consultancy firm TTP Group. The business was carved from the larger entity four years ago, and supported by Battery Ventures through a period of exponential growth.
SPTL was finally acquired by EQT Private Equity in June 2022 as a result of the impressive potential of its sample preparation technology and the growth of automated experimentation in life sciences research. The business is also recognized as one of the world leaders in automating protein analysis workflows. By the end of 2022, which was hugely successful for the organization, it had not only expanded its revenue from £20 million up to £60 million, it had also absorbed £40 million through acquisitions.
“Today, we are a leading supplier of industry enabling products and solutions,” states David Newble, CEO. “R&D is still a key focus of ours, but over the last few years we have grown dramatically and, as a result, now possess greatly enhanced production and manufacturing capabilities. These coincide with our dedicated commercial and support functions across the UK, USA, China and Germany, and our growing team of over 400 people.
“SPT stands for Sample Preparation Technologies. The essence of our company is to help our customers achieve their goals with greater speed, efficiency and accuracy, with our fit-for-purpose automation solutions that are built to the highest standard. Our portfolio of leading products, technologies and services can be adopted in a standalone fashion or into much larger workflows across liquid handling, sample management and handling, and Cryogenic Electron Microscopy (Cryo EM). The industries that we serve include pharma, biotech, government services, research institutes and academia, focusing on segments such as genomics, drug discovery and structural biology.”
The key production sites for the company’s instruments and consumables are spread across its global footprint. Melbourn in the UK, for its core ranges, Covina and Concord in California, which specialize in its Apricot range, OEM and BioMicroLab range, Jena in Germany, nanofabrication of Quantifoil products, and Hangzhou in China that also focuses on its Apricot line. Besides honing their particular fortes, each of the facilities are increasingly cross-pollinating skills, experience and expertise in each other’s fields.
David Auty, UK Manufacturing Director, details the role of the Melbourn plant, the company’s headquarters: “The site produces liquid handling instruments and sample management automation instruments, as well as a large percentage of the consumables from our SPTL range. Our most exciting initiative recently was to get Firefly, our latest product, through development into manufacturing and shipped out to our customers by the end of 2022. We employ focused teamwork and precision planning, as well as value stream mapping and workplace organization to ensure absolute efficiency. We have spent the last 12-to-18 months enhancing our ERP system, making sure that its data structures support our growth plans and that its integrity, BOMs and processes are fully optimized. This is now the template for all systems across the group.”
Besides manufacturing, SPTL has its largest R&D center based in Cambridgeshire, UK. A New Product Development (NPD) begins with a research program that investigates requirements, viability and business value. By approaching this with a customer driven focus, the business is able to transform research into higher capacity and lower cost outcomes that align with user requirement specifications.
As Simon Tullet, Head of Research and Development, details further: “Investment varies depending on the nature and scale of the development. Typically, a complex initiative such as Firefly can take around three years from concept to final hand-over. Each NPD comes with new technical challenges, and investments into new technology are ongoing. Examples of these include additive manufacturing, industrial design, organized software testing, 3D CAD, electronics and firmware tools. Another hurdle we’ve overcome is the misalignment of processes between our locations in the US and UK. Common practices lead to more effective management and enable teams to share resources, which is particularly important considering our R&D team currently consists of more than 60 engineers, technicians and scientists across our three international sites.”
SPTL’s offerings are split into three main areas. Its primary focus is liquid handling for which it boasts the industry’s most comprehensive array of products and technologies. The core range includes Firefly, Mosquito and Dragonfly, a mix of lab bench pipettors and dispensers that provide accurate solutions for volumes ranging from nanoliters to milliliters for partial or full workflow automation. These facilitate the miniaturization of traditional and emerging techniques practiced across multiple applications in life sciences research. The company’s Apricot range, S1, S2 and S3, offers introductory automation for liquid handling clients that require a lower throughput for more general processes.
Secondly, is sample management and handling, which is divided into either large sample repositories or benchtop tube handling units. The former, SPTL Arktic and Compound, are scalable refrigeration units, providing temperatures as low as -80C, for storing biological samples and chemical compounds. The systems employ pneumatic technology to manage and transport samples within the space and can be scaled up by connecting to neighboring units. The latter, BioMicroLAb, can cap, de-cap, label and scan vials and test tubes, eliminating the need for human intervention.
The final area is Cryo EM, a collection of sample preparation instruments and grids designed for the increasingly commonplace protein imaging techniques being adopted across the life sciences research sector. The SPTL Chameleon automates the consistent application of samples to high-quality nanofabricated foil grids for Cryo EM analysis, saving users time and helping to improve their research outcomes. SPTL’s Quantifoil range is currently leading the market, following in the footsteps of past innovations and go-to solutions within the industry.
With the most recent of all being the Firefly range, Joby Jenkins, Vice President of Business Development, explains: “It’s a key product for us going forwards. We’ve successfully combined pipetting and dispensing into one compact, yet high throughput system, with the key process automation modules of heating, cooling and shaking. It’s operated using a new software package that combines intuitive UI and enables cloud-based collaboration, and we’re certain it will drive significant growth within our liquid handling segment over the coming years.”
The range is also the first tangible outcome from a multi-million-pound development program that started three years ago. Besides further extensions, set to be released in 2023 and 2024, we’re fascinated to see what else is in the pipeline for SPTL and the fulfilment of its projected growth to £500 million annual turnover within the next five years.