While Covid-19 slowed the startup economy in the first half of 2020, the bioeconomy continued to power ahead. Fifty-six synthetic biology companies pulled in just over $3 billion of equity investment in the first half of this year, compared with 65 companies raising $1.9 billion in the same period last year.
The takeaway: coronavirus is not hampering the estimated $4 trillion bioeconomy being driven by synthetic biology.
Most of us don’t realize that the objects in our everyday lives—from the food we eat and the cars we drive to medicines we depend on—rely on biomanufacturing. Synthetic biology is a field dedicated to making biology easier to engineer. It combines advanced computation, automation, and biology to create biomanufacturing methods that are faster, cheaper, and better than conventional manufacturing.
Over the past six months, synthetic biology investors wrote some of their biggest checks to biopharma companies. This is no surprise as synthetic biology tools are transforming the pharma industry; a new class of biopharma startups is applying synthetic biology to areas like cell therapy, gene therapy, and early cancer detection. But food, agriculture, and industrial biotech are also well-represented, indicating synthetic biology’s broad impact on a wide range of industries.
So, let’s follow the money and get a glimpse of some of the life-changing breakthroughs in health, agriculture, and biotech on the horizon.
Top funded synthetic biology companies in the first half of 2020
Sana Biotechnology led the way with a monster $700 million Series A in June. Sana, headquartered in Seattle, focuses on cell therapy, gene therapy, and gene editing. Given the magnitude of its funding, the company has kept a surprisingly low profile. But it is known to be pursuing a range of promising technologies, some of which is identified through discussions with its initial backers, including Flagship Pioneering, ARCH Venture Partners, and F-Prime Capital.
Sana Biotechnology designs cells to treat cancer, central nervous system diseases, heart disease, and genetic disorders. These specialized cells can function in a variety of ways, depending on the application. For instance, some might replace damaged or missing cells in the body, while others deliver molecular payloads of RNA, DNA, or proteins to reprogram existing cells.
Second on the list is Impossible Foods, whose half-billion-dollar Series F included celebrity investors Mindy Kaling, Jay-Z, Trevor Noah, Jaden Smith, Katy Perry, Serena Williams, and Bill Gates, to name a few. Institutional investors were led by Mirae Asset Global Investments and included Khosla Ventures, Horizons Ventures, and Temasek.
Impossible Foods makes plant-based burgers that have the uncanny taste and texture of a real hamburger. What makes its burgers taste unlike veggie patties and more like a beef hamburger is the molecule heme, an essential molecule found in plants and most abundantly in animals. Impossible Foods’ plant-based heme is made via fermentation — the same process used to make beer, bread, and kombucha — using genetically engineered yeast. You can learn more about Impossible Foods’ ideas about genetic modification from a blog post, or you can go to Burger King and try the Impossible Whopper for yourself.
Moderna Therapeutics was the third highest-funded company in 1H2020 on our list of synthetic biology companies. It was just December 2018 when Moderna announced its $604 million IPO, the highest in biotech history.
Moderna has received lots of press as the first company to ship a vaccine for testing against the novel coronavirus. Moderna’s technology platform is based on mRNA, the sequences that code for DNA in the body. Using mRNA to develop medicines, Moderna takes advantage of the human body’s normal processes to create a desired therapeutic effect. Moderna reported favorable results from the clinical trial of its Covid-19 vaccine, although the competition to produce a vaccine is fierce and the ability to manufacture an mRNA drug at scale is yet to be demonstrated.
Moderna was co-founded by Noubar Afeyan, a two-time immigrant born to Armenian parents in Lebanon who immigrated with his family in his early teens to Canada. He started his first company at age 24, and over the next ten years Afeyan founded or co-founded five more companies. In 1999 he founded Flagship Ventures, where he pioneered a more systematic approach to funding promising companies.
Apeel Sciences came in at number four with a $250M Series D to advance their technology to tackle food waste globally. Apeel is a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer that has been recognized by TIME and Fast Company for its innovative technology. Apeel is developing a family of plant-derived coatings used by fresh food growers, suppliers, and retailers to keep produce fresh. The company claims that produce with Apeel stays fresh two to three times longer, promoting more sustainable supply chains, better quality food, and less food waste for everyone. This would benefit growers, suppliers, and retailers, providing extended shelf life and transportability while reducing the need for refrigeration.
Rounding out the top five was Memphis Meats, another darling of the food tech industry. Memphis Meats develops meat produced directly from animal cells without the need to raise and slaughter animals. Its goal is to help feed a world of 10 billion people by 2050 while preserving the environment and offering consumers additional meat, poultry, and seafood choices. Memphis Meats is supported by world-class investors like SoftBank Group, Temasek, Norwest, and Threshold Ventures, food industry leaders Cargill and Tyson Foods TSN +0.4%, and renowned impact investors Bill Gates and Richard Branson.
Synthetic biology goes public
Synthetic biology was once the domain of small biotech startups, but today the list of public synthetic biology companies has grown large. SynBioBeta’s Calvin Schmidt tracks public synthetic biology companies in his CSSBI, a representative list of public synthetic biology companies in three weighted sectors: pharma, agriculture/food, and industrial biotechnology. Here’s how those companies have performed against the broader market so far this year:
Here are a few of the best-performing companies:
- Twist Bioscience demonstrated great success in pivoting its DNA synthesis technology toward Covid-19 as it emerged from its 2018 IPO.
- Last year, AquaBounty Technologies AQB +1.1% completed a 20-year upstream battle to bring sustainable GE salmon to market. It plans the first harvest of its genetically modified Atlantic salmon from its Albany, Indiana facility at the end of this year.
- Amyris AMRS -25.8% has also performed well this year — I recently wrote about Purecane, a fermented zero-calorie sugar substitute Amyris recently brought to market that actually tastes good.
One company likely to be added to the CSSBI is Berkeley Lights, which just went public in July 2020. I’ve previously written how Berkeley Lights has targeted Covid-19 with a remarkable piece of technology that allows scientists and bioengineers to precisely analyze single cells and find antibodies to neutralize the virus that has tanked the global economy. The company raised $178 million on an upsized offering — 41% above expectations — and soared almost 200% on its first trading day.
The economic — and humanitarian — outlook is good
As these next-generation companies show, with over $3 billion of funding in the first half of 2020 alone, investor interest in synthetic biology continues unabated. And, as bullish as these companies’ economic prospects may be, their potential humanitarian benefits are even greater.
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to John Murray, Kevin Costa, and Calvin Schmidt 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 2020 Global Synthetic Biology Summit and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.
Originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2020/09/09/synthetic-biology-startups-raised-30-billion-in-the-first-half-of-2020/0