The frontier of biomedical research is inside an unassuming green box with a black-and-white touchscreen mounted on a rack in the International Space Station. Within that green box is a microplate reader, a workhorse appliance in labs on Earth but the ﬁrst of its kind to work in the near-zero gravity at 250 miles up. A microplate reader screens hundreds of liquid samples at once for drug candidates or infectious disease, but ﬂuids at zero Gs can ﬂoat around or settle in unwanted ways. This barred scientists from using microplates in space, where researchers prize the absence of gravity for its insights into how crystals, bacteria and drug agents behave.
Solving that problem was one small step for a tiny company called NanoRacks, which has carved out an unusual niche (and a monopoly, for now) adapting lab gear to the US National Lab on the ISS. Since 2010 it has designed and built all 36 of the modular labs there. It has also acquired for the ISS two microscopes and a centrifuge that can simulate the gravity on, say, the moon or Mars. NanoRacks has ﬂown 70 payloads to the ISS and is contracted to ﬂy 80 more. Last year, it generated more than $3 million in revenue, of which only one quarter comes from Nasa. Other customers include European and Saudi space agencies, universities in the UK and Vietnam, and even Scotch distiller Ardbeg, which sent up ﬂavour molecules called terpenes to age for two years in charred oak.
NanoRacks’ entrepreneurial approach has cut the cost of doing science in space just as Elon Musk’s SpaceX has shown that startups can deliver payloads safely and more cheaply than governments can. Nasa told NanoRacks that a space-ready microplate reader would take years and cost millions. “We told them we could do it in six months for less than a million,” says NanoRacks Managing Director Jeffrey Manber. NanoRacks ended up doing it for $500,000 and even gave Nasa the same money-back guarantee it offers commercial customers. “We’ve only done that one other time,” says Marybeth Edeen, who manages the US National Lab aboard the space station. “It’s a good model in that it incentivises companies to build robust hardware.”
To make its microplate reader space-ready, NanoRacks had to tweak the capillary action of its 96 tiny wells to ensure that liquids were placed correctly on a slide and had to dumb down the machine’s user interface so an untrained astronaut could use it. “When astronaut Kevin Ford turned it on and ran the initial experiment, we had to wait for it to run overnight,” says Manber. “We had trouble sleeping. But in the morning, we downloaded the data, and it was perfect.”
NanoRacks charges roughly $60,000 for each microplate reader experiment and is getting a lot more new customers beyond Nasa, so it shouldn’t take the company too long to get a return on its investment. “We were proﬁtable last year, and we’ll be proﬁtable this year,” says Richard Pournelle, NanoRacks’ senior vice president for business development.
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(This story appears in the 19 April, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)