A $58M question

Nanosphere, one of the three companies founded by Chad Mirkin, has been bought today for $58M by Luminex. Is this another triumph of the Spherical Nucleic Acids?

Nanosphere was founded in 1999 by Dr. Robert Letsinger and Dr. Chad Mirkin and went public in 2007 (NASDAQ: NSPH). In 2004, MIT technology reports “a powerful but cheap nanotech tool available this year could test for everything from genetic diseases to heart-attack signs.”

Mirkin says that the Nanosphere technology is orders of magnitude more sensitive than other detection techniques, as well as fast and accurate. What’s more, the technology detects DNA or proteins directly, does not require expensive and time-consuming preparation of blood samples, and can test for multiple targets at once. “It will completely change the way the world looks at diagnostics, he says. “I’m very confident that we’re going to see a lot of new diagnostic tools come out of this.”

However, 12 years after this statement and 17 years since foundation, the company is still to make a profit. It has been able to raise and spend huge amounts of money. Not being a financial expert myself, I can’t quite work out the total, but it is probably close to ten times the value it has been sold today. An article last year, entitled “Things are not well at Nanosphere” reported that the company had “burned through $412.5 million since inception”.


The difficulties of the company, visible for all for example in the evolution of the share prices since 2007 (above), have not led to any nuance in the enthusiastic celebration of Mirkin as a genius entrepreneur leading the way in the translation of nanotechnology into healthcare. Mirkin also benefitted directly through consultancy fees from 2005 to 2013 ($100k per year 2008-2013) and a 2010 news article reports that “while profits have been elusive, Nanosphere has paid off for Mr. Mirkin, who owned 840,000 shares as of this spring, or $2.5 million worth, although the stock has sagged lately…“.

Future will tell how much an important contribution to diagnostic the Spherical Nucleic probes of Nanosphere (now Luminex) will make.

At least, for the moment, it is a better outcome than another Mirkin-founded company, NanoInk.

Update: see reporting by John Pletz from Chicago Business





  1. You really just don’t like this guy huh? Focus on your own damn research and maybe you could be making that type of money. I sense a lot of jealousy!


    1. Thanks for the advice “EU-sucks” (who has an IP address in the US so maybe not a reference to the UK debate on membership of the EU). It might be very hard to believe for some but I am not motivated by money, nor personal feelings towards Chad Mirkin. I have not talked more than a few minutes with Chad and this was to convince him that he had to share the data underlying his PNAS stickyflare paper (he eventually did; we analysed those and found that the conclusions were not supported though that did not seem to interest PNAS).


      1. Prof. Mirkin has developed quite a bit of technology that I use in my own research and I find his papers to be well-done and reproducible. Given how prolific he is, I’m not surprised some of his inventions don’t work as well as others. But this blog post reeks of you relishing in the failure of his companies. Not a very nice character trait to put on display! As far as my username, yes the UK should leave the EU for reasons which I hope are obvious.


  2. “EU-SUCKS”, it is nice to hear that you have found Prof. Mirkin’s papers to be “well-done and reproducible” and that these have been useful for your own research. Your comment would of course carry more weight if it was signed and you could detail which of those papers you have reproduced, and, in particular, whether they have anything to do with what I have been discussing on my blog or recent paper [indeed, I have no doubt that in his “prolific” papers, many are well done and reproducible].

    I do not “relish” in NanoSphere’s failure, but I note an indisputable fact that seems to be ignored by those who celebrate Mirkin’s successes as an entrepreneur, namely that he is now at his second (out of three) company failures (although, as I note in my conclusion, there might still be hope that Luminex will turn things around?). If we add to this the SmartFlare technology sold by Millipore which does not work and is most probably not a commercial success, we end up with a picture where tremendous hype has paid in various ways (to him and a number of other people) but has not translated into commercial applications.


      1. Who cares what UK scientists have to say about Brexit? [Edited by Raphael: this is my blog; go and spill your venom elsewhere]


    1. I can’t say that analogy did not cross my mind. There are parallels, in particular in the ways hype has been used to raise substantial funds over a very long period of time. But there are also significant differences; the technology is (largely) published with (some) data available, and, importantly, nobody is accusing NanoSphere of having put patients at risk with misleading test results.


      1. Yes you are right, a direct comparison is not justified at this moment.

        Meanwhile, reading through the comments thread, I am mildly pleased to see how trolls can be counterproductive for the personalities/causes they aggressively defend, making threats to collaborating scientific coworkers, especially during legitimate open discourse on scientific breakthroughs (claimed and hyped).

        Kudos to Raphaël Lévy and many others who dare to ask questions publicly and keep the scientific spirits up!!


  3. The running joke in the nano community is that if Levy would have any significant ideas or have the smarts to do good research, he would not have the time to try to poke holes in the work of other scientists of much higher caliber. Unfortunately, it is not a ‘joke’, and rather than finding holes, he creates them by force.


      1. Those who envy the famous for good work, try to poke holes in it.

        Also heard through the grapevine: Inferiority complex hidden behind the veil of trying to save the nano community by unveiling imaginary wrongdoing. Quixotic.


    1. Since when asking legitimate questions about published and commercialized products paid for by public funded research grants by investigating labs is ‘poking holes’?


      1. The ‘poking holes’ has a history. It’s not about the questions about commercialized products, but a litany of for the most part misguided critiques (look at the many posts by Levy in this blog) against various well-known researchers, including Mirkin and Stellacci, with a long track record of recognized discoveries. Now look at the CV of Levy: really poor. He wants to make it up and get the spotlight by ‘poking holes’. He is not getting far though. That’s why the running joke in the nano community.

        Levy is getting famous for his role as a poker joker. That’s quite a reputation. I am mostly sorry for his students.


    2. Nanoresearcher, if you are including nanoflares/SmartFlare among “the work of scientists of much higher caliber”, the holes were already there and just needed a properly skeptical scientist like Raphael to call them out. I found plenty of those holes while spending 8 months (early to mid 2013) trying to do SmartFlare applications development at Millipore. The many attempts that I made to show that SmartFlares/nanoflares could detect changes in mRNA levels, as Mirkin and Millipore so confidently reported, just showed that the fluorescence was coming from something other than RNAs. I left the company because I couldn’t play a part in the ongoing misrepresentation that SmartFlares/nanoflares detect RNAs in live cells. It was such a relief when I found Raphael’s post “How Smart are SmartFlares” in which he was the first to report publicly the sad truth about that technology. “unveiling imaginary wrongdoing”? No, the wrongdoing was entirely real.


      1. Sometimes a product turns out to be a dud and it’s not due to “wrongdoing” on anyone’s part. Science is self-correcting and if Smartflares don’t work, people won’t buy them. Mirkin might have jumped the gun on a technology that seemed promising, but to compare him to Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos is absurd. What Levy is doing here is expanding his trashing of Mirkin because he feels justified after finding a few weak results. It’s pretty pathetic. Focus on your own research. Oh wait, he doesn’t do research, he’s a lecturer.


  4. “EU-SUCKS”; Science would be better at self-correction if people were to report their replications (positive and negative) of each other’s work, and, if they were also more active in critiquing and sharing critiques of each other’s work. There is this problem, now well recognized, call “publishing bias” where only positive results get published. Thus, prior to our paper and blogs, looking at the litterature would give the impression that SmartFlare works, since nobody had called out on Mirkin’s “few weak results” and the only SF papers are ones which report positive results. What we don’t know is how many groups have been mislead by Mirkin’s papers and Merck Millipore’s advertising, bought these particles, got unhelpful results, and filed them in their drawers.

    What I am doing in the post above is not expanding my trashing of Mirkin. The SmartFlare story is about “few weak results” turned into a product that does not work, about publishing bias, etc. It is also about hype and the celebration of translation of fundamental science into applications. In that context, the link with the NanoSphere story should be rather obvious.

    “Oh wait, he doesn’t do research, he’s a lecturer.” Teaching can be pretty wonderful (with the exception of marking…), but just for your own education about the UK higher education system (and maybe other non-UK readers of this blog), lecturers, senior lecturers, readers and professors, are all academics with open ended contract who do a mixture of research and teaching.


  5. Good to see our old troll-friend here after the stripy nanoparticle saga.

    To the uninitiated: there seems to be at least one individual trolling under different anonymous handles (and claiming to be from various countries) responding at different channels (e..g the PLOS comments section for Stirling et. al’s stripy paper).

    The trolling generally consists of ad hominem attacks, extremely poorly thought out arguments and appeals to odd choices of authority (e.g Mirkin in this case).

    I’ve been following the work of Levy and his collaborators for years. They are sincere, correct (to the best of my reasoning abilities) and careful in their outreach and meticulous in their sharing of data. The base tenor of the insults on webpages is a good cue as to the actually correct perspective (hint: it isn’t the trolls!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know who you are referring to as troll-friend. I haven’t followed that saga.

      By the way, reading that the work of Levy is sincere and meticulous made me LOL. Astrologers also think of their work as sincere, correct and meticulous.


      1. Nanoresearcher, I’m very curious about your assessment of nanoflare/Smartflare and whether the technology reports intracellular RNA or an unrelated activity. EU-SUCKS conceded that the technology is a dud.


      2. A great deal of Levy’s recent commentary has focused on that saga, I’m puzzled as to how you know enough to suggest that someone is not sincere and meticulous without having a cursory understanding of the recent work that person has been involved in.

        I suppose it isn’t such a difficult puzzle after all. Here is a better puzzle about the Hairy Ball theorem on page 52 from Ian Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures:



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