PALO ALTO, CALIF—In the high-pressure world of pharmaceutical research, scientists routinely risk corporate fortunes in a search for new compounds that could lead to big payoffs in such areas as cancer or heart disease. Indeed, virtually every major company has tried to speed up its process of creating and testing blockbuster drugs—a move that could save millions on development costs and beat a firm’s competitors to the marketplace. But progress in this high-stakes field has been slow. What’s needed, according to Alejandro Zaffaroni, is a highly auto- mated, low-cost system to test thousands of natural and synthetic compounds in a matter of hours.

Zaffaroni is a Uruguayan-born biochemist and the founder of ALZA Corp., a drug delivery firm he launched two decades ago. Last year, spurred by his belief in the potential of a drug-testing enterprise, he founded Affymax, N.y., and set out to lure scientists from academe with the...

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