IndieBio’s First Class of Startups: Bioreactors, Blood Tests, and DIY Genetic Engineering

Biology is accelerating faster than Moore’s Law, says IndieBio founder. It’s time for scientists to be entrepreneurs

Photo: O'Donnell Photography
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IndieBio San Francisco, a startup accelerator dedicated to launching science-based companies, launched its first class of 12 companies last week. Backed by SOSVentures, the same company that’s behind hardware accelerator Hax, IndieBio San Francisco is a sister company to IndieBio Europe, based in Cork, Ireland, launched in 2014.

“This is the time for biology,” said IndieBio co-founder Arvind Gupta at the launch event. Biology is accelerating faster than Moore’s Law; the cost of DNA sequencing is falling rapidly. And its not just sequencing, but all aspects of science—DNA synthesis, digital PCR, DNA editing—that are promising to make molecular biology more efficient, faster, and cheaper than ever before.”

Many of the companies in IndieBio’s first class are making tools for biotech.

  • Low-cost bioreactors. Bioreactors that precisely control fermentation are used in industry for everything from brewing beer to making insulin. The problem with bioreactors on the market today is that they are too expensive, hard to use, and inflexible in what you can do with them. At least, that’s what the founders of Sensa.io, a.k.a. ArkReactor, think. The company has designed a low-cost (about $600), easy to use (you can check on fermentation in process with a mobile phone app), and open source bioreactor. Sensa.io says its first official customer is a company making a vegan cheese, however, a couple of IndieBio sister companies have also been using its technology. I’m guessing home brewmeisters will have some interest in this as well.

  • A desktop lab robot that can see what it’s doing. aBioBot thinks its time for biologists to have their own “Makerbot,” that is, a desktop robot in a box that can assemble things—in this case, liquid-based experiments in test tubes. I’ve seen other versions of pipetting robots; aBioBot says its robot is special because it can “see,” so users don’t have to precisely align test tubes or do complicated programming; its vision capabilities also let it spot problems and send alerts to a mobile app.

  • Stem cells for research use. Extem says there aren’t enough stem cells to go around, so the company intends to build a large stem cell donor bank and produce stem cells in large quantities from that bank.

  • Lowering the manufacturing cost of monoclonal antibodies. These immunotherapy drugs are expensive to make; one of the major costs of production is separating out the specific antibodies. This is often done through a process called affinity purification, using an antigen to attract the antibodies. Affinity says it has designed a synthetic affinity column for performing this task at a dramatically lower cost than the alternatives.

  • DIY genetic engineering. Arcturus BioCloud thinks a lot more people would be involved in genetic engineering if they had access to the tools, so the company has created what it calls “robotic bioservers” that will make up a cloud-based genetic engineering laboratory. The company plans to offer a library of DNA fragments, assembled to order by robots in San Francisco. Users will be able to watch live streams of their experiment; they don’t actually receive the physical results, just the virtual ones.

  • More accurate genetic testing. Ranomics says genetic testing today has a big problem; researchers don’t understand what the majority of variants of critical genes mean. The company is hoping to improve this situation by manufacturing full spectrums of gene variants and then testing them in various ways to determine how pathogenic each variant is. This process will allow Ranomics to build a database of variant information far faster than it would take if we wait for patients with each variant to be diagnoses. The company plans to launch its database with variants of the 20 most common cancer genes; it will charge genetics testing firms to query its database.

Some, however, did focus on producing biotechnology-based products. With the shared incubator space, it turned out that some of these first product companies were the first customers of some of the tool-building companies.

  • Animal-free egg white. Startup Clara Foods thinks chickens are a terrible way to make eggs, particularly the egg-white only products that are sold to health-conscious consumers and used in processed foods. So the company reverse engineered the egg white and figured out how to use yeast to create the seven proteins out of sugar. For a “normal” egg white, Clara Foods combines all seven proteins, but the company says it can also make designer egg whites with special features, for example, better foaming for lighter meringues.  Clara Foods is using sister company Sensa.io’s bioreactors in its manufacturing process.

  • Lab-on-a-chip blood testing. Orphidia isn’t the only company aiming to bring blood testing out of the laboratory and onto a chip, but that doesn’t mean it won’t win the race to develop this technology. Orphidia says it can make those chips for about US $5 (or 10 cents a test) and will sell them for $20 to $100; it plans on making the reader available for free.

  • A way to grow enzymes in a patient, not in a lab. Enzyme replacement therapy for a number of disease conditions is expensive and requires regular hospital visits. Blue Turtle Bio thinks a better way to get enzymes into a patient’s stomach is to make them there. It is engineering bacteria to produce enzymes; a patient will just have to swallow a pill that contains the bacteria. The company’s first product will be an enzyme that treats Gaucher’s Disease.

  • Engineered bacteria to produce skin-like dressings—or even artificial skin. Bioloom has developed bacteria that excrete long strands of cellulose fiber. The company plans to first turn these fibers into hydrogels for wound dressings; it says eventually the material could be used as a scaffold for growing artificial skin.

  • Non-petroleum based industrial chemicals. Startup ZymoChem wants synthetic materials—like the nylon used to make everyday jackets—to come from renewable resources instead of petroleum. The company says it has developed microbes that can convert natural sugars to industrial chemicals.

IndieBio is now taking applications for its next class. Each company accepted will receive up to $250,000 in funding, lab space, mentorship opportunities, and other help in return for 8 percent of equity.

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