Towards the end of his life, Steve Jobs came to a realization: “I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology,” said Jobs. The quote, which was revealed in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of the Apple founder, referred to Jobs’ son Reed who had developed a passion for genomics while Jobs battled pancreatic cancer. “A new era [of biotech] is beginning, just like the digital one when I was his age,” Jobs said. Though Jobs passed away in 2011, it should come as no surprise that Jobs was right.
Now the age of biotech has officially arrived. Last week, SynBioBeta reported that the synthetic biology industry raised a record $7.8 billion in investment in 2020 despite a global pandemic, a recession, and the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted what many in the biotech industry already knew: the future of therapeutics, sustainability, and even food, will likely come about through possibilities of biology.
But unlocking that power—as emphasized in SynBioBeta’s market report—takes funding capital. One of the key funding trends in 2020 was the record level interest of venture firms in the biotech space. As SynBioBeta’s report projected, this trend is continuing into 2021 with news of venture firm NfX’s new fund, NfX Bio.
Biotech Draws Dedicated Venture Funding
Announced today, this initiative will be led by new NfX partner, Omri Amirav Drory, Ph.D., and advised by Twist co-founder and CEO, Emily Leproust, Ph.D. This won’t be the first time NfX has backed synthetic biology companies. The firm’s previous seed investments include Mammoth Biosciences, co-founded by Nobel Prize laureate, Jennifer Doudna, and Leproust’s own Twist, which has become one of the most successful synthetic biology companies to date with a market cap of nearly $9 billion.
NfX Bio certainly isn’t the first venture fund to focus on biotech startups. DCVC Bio (of which I am an Operating Partner) and Andreseesen Horowitz venture fund A16Z Bio have focused their respective energies on biotech companies for a number of years. But NfX Bio’s approach is specifically focused on seed-stage companies with strong platform approaches. Notably, NfX Bio isn’t focused exclusively on biotech innovation in the Western Hemisphere. The fund will leverage its headquarters in both San Francisco, California, and Herzlia, Israel to support more diverse synthetic biology companies. The inclusion of Israel as a biotech center is significant—the country’s bioeconomy has grown significantly in the last several years. Hopefully, NfX Bio’s Israeli base will signal the growing confidence of biotech worldwide, not just in traditional regions like the US and Europe.
The Importance of Leading with Science
However, it’s more than technology that fuels these growing companies. The industry is also seeing the rise of what NfX General Partner, James Currier, calls the “scientist founder.” Currier points to Leproust, Drory, and Mammoth Biosciences CEO Trevor Martin as frontrunners in this new leadership class. “We want the scientist to be the CEO; it’s lab coats, not suits. We’re here to support those scientists who want to learn how to be founders. We’re going to fund [biotech companies]] like software companies where the people behind [the science] are going to run them,” says Currier.
Currier’s view of NfX Bio’s goal dovetails with Steve Jobs’ 10-year-old insight of how the biotech age would follow in the footsteps of the digital revolution. By having a foot in both the lab and the boardroom, scientist entrepreneurs can potentially develop nimble, creative business strategies while still maintaining a company’s true, originating purpose.
Leproust echoed Currier’s words “I know first-hand what it takes to build successful companies that propel science and humanity forward. I’m excited to find and fund entrepreneurs who are going to solve massive, global problems with the power of technology,” said Leproust.
As veterans in the biotech venture space, Currier and Drory have many more insights into synthetic biology investment than can be included in one article. To hear more, I’ll be speaking with Currier, Drory and Leproust on Clubhouse on Tuesday, February 2nd at 1 pm PST. I welcome you to join me then to learn more about how venture investment is shaping the future of the bioeconomy.
Thank you to Fiona Mischel for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest, including NfX and Twist Biosciences.
Article originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2021/02/02/new-synthetic-biology-venture-fund-puts-scientist-founders-first/?sh=1ab28a4be6d40