Checkerspot, a biotech startup using microalgae to produce performance materials, announced today that it has closed its Series A financing for $13 million. The round was led by Builders VC, and included Breakout Ventures, Viking Global Investors, KdT Ventures, Plug and Play Ventures, Sahsen Ventures, and Godfrey Capital, among others.
Checkerspot combines bioengineering, chemistry, and materials science to go from microalgae to next-generation performance materials.
“This is a pretty significant milestone for us,” said Checkerspot CEO Charles Dimmler. He said the funding would support the company’s continued infrastructure development, as well as ongoing commercial activities with Beyond Surface Technologies and DIC that focus on novel triglycerides and polyols. He also said it would help complete the development of a direct-to-consumer product later this year.
Investment and leadership at scale
“This synthetic biology wave is ushering in a whole new breed of companies who are going to be the next Dupont or the next Dow,” said Jim Kim, general partner of Builders VC, who will join Checkerspot’s Board of Directors, “and it’s really exciting to be part of a company that has that potential.”
Kim was previously part of Khosla Ventures and CMEA Capital, and also serves on Bolt Thread’s board. Kim sees Checkerspot’s differentiator as being able to rapidly bring high-value products to market with unique properties unmatched by traditional manufacturing.
“We are breaking new ground at the intersection of molecular biology and materials science, and this financing will allow us to continue to build out our existing materials and products while at the same time allow us to further expand the application of these materials across multiple industries. Fundamentally, we see microalgal triglycerides as scaffolds upon which to build entirely new classes of materials,” said Dr. Scott Franklin, CSO and co-founder of Checkerspot.
“We’re at a new age of industrial material production,” Kim said. By applying genetic tools in different arenas, he said, we’re able to make materials with unheard-of properties. “And we’re able to do it in a way that is not harsh, nasty, chemically driven, massively expensive…”
Kim points out that chemicals and materials is a huge space, “with the biggest potential for disruption that I’ve been a part of or will ever be a part of.” Kim says that platform companies like Checkerspot and Bolt Threads are “the goose that is laying the golden egg,” creating value many times over in the flexible, multi-product platforms they develop.
Triglycerides: An underutilized industrial polymer
Commodity-scale crops such as palm, canola, soy, and rapeseed produce about fourteen different fatty acids. Based on their starting properties, these fatty acids are refined into triglycerides for thousands of different consumer products, from personal care to food and nutrition to a wide range of industrial applications. In nature, however, there are hundreds of other fatty acids with unique chemical properties that are not suitable as commodity crops.
Checkerspot’s molecular foundry is a platform technology that basically programs microalgae to produce those fatty acids with unique properties, which can then be produced at large scale in a fermentation based system for high-performance product applications.
Next-generation performance polyurethanes can have a variety of improved properties. Checkerspot is particularly interested in strength-to-weight ratio and damping — desirable properties for a range of industries from outdoor recreation to automotive applications. Checkerspot also has a commercial focus on water-wicking coatings, and its partnership with Beyond Surface Technologies centers on a performance textile wicking finish — without the fluorine.
Get the fluorine out
Fluorinated chemistry has been a go-to industrial method for conferring water, oil, and stain resistance on apparel, carpeting, and even food packaging. The problem is that certain fluorinated chemicals accumulate in animals at much higher levels than PCBs and pesticides, leading some scientists to urge consumers to avoid products such as raincoats and non-stick frying pans. Checkerspot’s biotech-enabled materials innovate around that problem.
“It’s the single greatest challenge that the outdoor recreation industry is focused on solving,” says Dimmler, “and it’s amazing to us that outdoor recreation is sort of the canary in the coal mine warning to chemistry.”
Fluorinated chemistry is great for waterproofing materials but hazardous to human health and the environment, representing a major challenge for the outdoor recreation industry. Checkerspot’s approach to producing novel triglycerides from microalgae innovates around that problem. Photo by Mark Doda on Unsplash
Biotech in vogue?
Checkerspot’s commitment to sustainability was recognized by Fashion for Good, a consortium that wants to help the fashion industry scale technologies and business models that have the greatest potential to transform the industry. Checkerspot’s Dimmler was selected as one of ten innovators to participate in its twelve-week curriculum, including mentorship and business development opportunities with the corporate partners.
I asked Dimmler how important it is to the public conversation about genetic engineering for companies like Checkerspot to be producing useful products for consumers.
“At the risk of exaggerating a little bit, I think it says everything.” Dimmler feels that with any new technology, there’s a learning curve for both innovators and consumers, and that durable goods as a use case may raise fewer health and safety concerns than, for example, foods or medicines. “I think those are really interesting use cases early on as we move forward as a field,” he says.
Join us October 1-3 in San Francisco to see how synthetic biology is disrupting performance materials. Meet the innovators and companies, find new opportunities, partner up and discover the potential of the biological industrial revolution at SynBioBeta 2019.