December 16, 2015

‘Google for Nature’ MetaMixis Accepted Into Third Round of Illumina Accelerator

BC Bioenergy Network Prize 2014 (MetaMixis)

Illumina recently announced that their genomics-focused accelerator program, known appropriately enough as Illumina Accelerator, has accepted four companies into the third funding round, namely MetaMixis, NextGen Jane, Skinomics, and Vitagene. Illumina, of course, are a genotyping and sequencing-services company who have grown from humble beginnings to a giant with revenues topping $1.8 billion USD in 2014. The Illumina Accelerator acts to encourage the use and development of next generation sequencing tools by the entrepreneurial community.
Acceptance into the six-month program brings a number of benefits ranging from the financial ($100k in convertible notes, $20k in unsecured equity) to the scientific (lab space in the San Francisco Bay Area, access to instruments and reagents) and to the commercial (pitch assistance, business advice and the oh-so-vital introductions).

The program also provides access to the investment provided by the Illumina Accelerator Boost Capital fund. This program is not the traditional VC investor, instead providing dollar-for-dollar matching of any funds raised by the entrepreneurs during the six month program – and thus allowing lucky entrepreneurs to double their investment gains.

So who are the lucky entrants?

Today’s article will focus on MetaMixis Incorporated, a synthetic biology firm who are currently based in Vancouver, Canada.

Originally established in 2012 by co-founders Stephen Hallam and Cameron Stracham, the company aims to revolutionize the manner in which microbes are designed and engineered for the production of chemical compounds.
The market of microbial products is a large one (currently in the hundreds of billions of dollars) and encompasses chemicals ranging from ethanol to complex biomolecules. Production of these compounds requires that the appropriate biosynthetic pathway be identified and the genes involved be included into a microbial production strain. These pathways can be quite complex, (witness for example the number of steps required to produce the precursor to the anti-malarial artemisinin), and thus more efficient pathways can be the difference between valued bio-factory and expensive flop.

MetaMixis’ approach remains relatively secretive, although it appears to involve the development of novel DNA-based biosensors to detect the chemicals intended to be manufactured. These biosensors are then used in a secondary screen to identify enzymes and genes which are involved in the synthesis of these compounds, providing a suite of possibilities for further analysis. MetaMixis claim that standardised procedures can reduce the time required to develop an assay down to a week or so, while the range of biosensor systems developed for each target compound allow a range of pathways to be examined.

Beyond their platform technology, MetaMixis has utilised their system to identify pathways for the production of aromatic chemicals from forest wastes, in particular the conversion of lignin into vanillin. Vanillin, used as a chemical intermediate as well as in flavouring and perfumes, currently represents a $500 million USD/year market. If MetaMixis’ microbial vanillin-production technology can be scaled up to industrially competitive yields, they may have quite a valuable licensing opportunity on their hands.

Investors and venture capitalists certainly appear impressed with the potential for MetaMixis to grow. As well as the aforementioned Illumina Accelerator, MetaMixis has had support from incubators such as Stanford’s StartX, California-based QB3 and seed-stage fund 500 Startups, all of whom have a well-respected cohort of alumni. Metamixis has further managed to be finalists in OneStart’s 2014 Americas round and have picked up other investments along the way, such as a $20,000 CAD BC Bioenergy Network Prize from the British Columbia Innovation Council.

Thus the future seems to be looking up for a company which has been described as a ‘Google for nature’. There are some high expectations inherent in both that phrase and the opinions which underlie it. Will MetaMixis be able to uphold and surpass those hopes? Illumina certainly seems to think so.