The detectors

MUKILTEO — Long before the phrase "homeland security" became part of the everyday vocabulary, CombiMatrix Corp. was working on technology that could detect anthrax and other deadly organisms.

After the terrorist attacks wave of anthrax-contaminated mail in fall 2001, however, the company’s research and development work suddenly gained immediate importance to the federal government.

But diving into the defense sector and knowing the ins and outs of working with military officials didn’t come naturally for CombiMatrix. That’s why David Danley, a 57-year-old retired military colonel, joined the Mukilteo-based company as its first director of homeland security and defense programs.

"We’ve always been a biotech and life sciences-oriented company," said Amit Kumar, CombiMatrix’s chief executive officer and president. "We don’t have a lot of experience working with military and government agencies. That’s something David adds."

Until last year, Danley was a project manager for the Chemical Biological Medical Systems program in Frederick, Md. There, the U.S. Army veteran oversaw critical efforts to develop vaccines against smallpox, anthrax and plague. Prior to that, he was involved in a range of Army research programs.

Through all that work, Oregon-born Danley kept up on cutting-edge technologies, he said, so the leap to a biotech firm wasn’t a huge culture shock.

Having spent 22 years on active duty and 10 years in the reserves, Danley knows how to talk to the military brass. Additionally, with CombiMatrix’s technology, it’s been easy to keep the interest of military officials, he said.

"When you have a quality product, people want to work with you," said Danley, who lives in Everett.

The Department of Defense has worked with CombiMatrix since 1999, and recently gave the company a two-year contract extension worth $5.9 million to help perfect a bioweapon detector. That could then be used on battlefields or even in domestic government buildings to detect potential biological weapons or substances.

The heart of such a device will feature CombiMatrix’s core technology: semiconductor chips that use electrochemical analysis to identify potentially deadly substances in the air. The chips are variations on the programmable DNA analysis chips, known as microarrays, that the firm offers to laboratory researchers.

CombiMatrix’s detection chip is small, but that’s not its most attractive feature to the military, Danley said.

"The size of this chip isn’t as important as its ability to detect viruses, bacterials and antibodies all on one chip," he said.

CombiMatrix has designed chips that use both antibodies and genetic analysis to identify biothreats. While the antibody method is faster and cheaper, using genetic analysis can more accurately identify the specific threat, Danley explained.

Kumar said the millions of defense dollars CombiMatrix has received for its work has benefited the entire company. At the same time, the research the government pays for usually costs less than if the government did it directly.

"It’s a good use of taxpayer dollars in that sense," he said.

While actually a homeland security and defense program director still is relatively unique, CombiMatrix’s increased interest in biodefense work is not uncommon, said Michael Werner, chief of policy for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks and military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, biotech companies have looked to apply their research into those areas.

He said the White House’s Project BioShield, which is aimed at developing effective drugs and vaccines to protect against biological and chemical weapons, has interested a number of biotech companies, as it offers incentives for research related to the project’s goal.

While work on CombiMatrix’s biothreat detection system progresses, the company isn’t ignoring its commercial products business. The company’s latest microarray product, CustomArray, was launched earlier this year. It also will soon begin selling synthesizer machines that can create customizable research chips for large laboratories.

CombiMatrix also has collaborated with researchers to highlight the company’s ability to create microarrays related to emerging diseases.

Most recently, that has included chips that can run tests for the virus known as bird or avian flu. A growing number of people have died from the virus, especially in Asia, where millions of chickens and ducks also have either died from the virus or been slaughtered to slow the outbreak.

"Because we can configure this chip to detect anything, we can use it to detect tuberculosis, avian flu, SARS or almost anything else," Danley said.

Between its work on both military and commercial products, CombiMatrix hopes to grow again after a period that saw staff cutbacks. Kumar predicted the company, which is a division of Acacia Research Corp. in Newport Beach, Calif., would hire 10 or more new employees by the year’s end.

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or

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