Health & Tech is a regular feature highlighting life sciences and high-tech companies throughout the region.
Company name: Aesku Diagnostics
Address: 701 Ellicott St., Buffalo, and corporate headquarters in Germany
Year founded: 2000
Founder: Dr. Torsten Matthias
Description: Aesku develops tests and instruments to help in the detection of autoimmune diseases.
Employees: Seven in Buffalo
Sales in 2015: The privately held company doesn’t divulge sales figures.
Lowdown: How did a German medical diagnostics company end up setting up shop in Buffalo?
Aesku Diagnostics wanted to work with Vijay Kumar, a former longtime associate research professor in the University at Buffalo’s department of microbiology and dermatology, and because the tax incentives available through the state’s Start-Up NY program made the region an attractive place to do business.
Aesku, founded 16 years ago in Germany, already had operations in California when Kumar started talking to company officials about working together. Discussions went slowly because the company wanted Kumar to lead an expansion in Germany that would require him to move or commute there. Kumar, a co-founder and later president and CEO of what became Amherst-based IMMCO Diagnostics, wasn’t thrilled by that idea.
But Kumar, who sold his IMMCO stake in 2009, gradually sold Aesku on Buffalo.
In June 2014, Aesku was one of the first companies unveiled as part of the Start-Up NY tax-free zone program. Kumar was given a prime speaking spot at a news conference at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, an honor he says he learned about only shortly before.
That came months after Aesku agreed to join a genomic medicine partnership led by the University at Buffalo and the New York Genome Center in Manhattan that was announced in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s State of the State address.
Aesku will develop and manufacture testing kits in Buffalo and promises to hire 31 workers and invest $2.8 million over five years as part of its Start-Up NY commitment.
Buffalo will become the North American hub for the company, said Kumar, a vice president with Aesku Diagnostics. The company today has seven employees in UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, with 12 expected by the end of this year.
Aesku develops tests that are more precise at detecting whether a patient has an autoimmune disease, such as celiac disease, the blistering skin disease pemphigus, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
The immune system protects the body from infection and disease. But in people who have an autoimmune disease, their immune system attacks the healthy cells in their body by mistake, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Kumar said when he was a young scientist in the 1980s, only 5 percent of the world’s population was known to have an autoimmune disease. Today, the diseases have been identified in between 7 percent and 10 percent of the world’s population, and Kumar said the number is increasing as the diseases are detected in more people. There are about 100 diseases with autoimmune manifestations, he said.
Aesku markets its products to the laboratories that perform the testing of patient blood samples. Some tests are disease specific, but some are used as screening tests.
The labs can buy testing kits that can be read manually by technicians. But Aesku customers also can buy a machine equipped with a microscope and computer software that can automatically process and read the test results for as many as 300 samples at one time. That machine, known as Helios, costs between $40,000 and $50,000 and appeals to labs that conduct a high volume of tests.
“It takes the human out of it,” Kumar said.
The Buffalo production hub has gotten off to a slower start than Kumar said he wanted, because it took longer than expected to procure equipment and hire for the center.
“Really, we did not start in ’14 at all,” Kumar said.
None of the testing kits that will be made in Buffalo have received approval from federal regulators. Aesku is performing the needed clinical trials and expects the approvals to come this summer. Kumar is scouting out sites on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus where production of the testing kits could take place.
Eventually, Kumar said, he hopes Buffalo could make products that are sold in the United States and around the world for Aesku.
“Well, if you’re not ambitious, nothing works, right?” he said.