Synthetic biology funding is on track for another strong year in 2019, with 25 companies already raising $652 million in the first quarter. This comes on the heels of the industry’s record-setting 2018, when 98 companies raised $3.8 billion. Investors continue to find compelling opportunities where synthetic biology can disrupt existing industries or create altogether new ones.
The biggest capital raises in 2019 have focused on platforms rather than specific applications. Often a single biotech innovation can be applied in many different ways, across different industries. This year the lion’s share of funding has gone to platforms that offer entirely new technological capabilities. And, continuing a recent trend, Q1 featured a large capital raise for a production platform that makes synthetic biology accessible and cost-effective in a growing number of applications.
So, who proved to be the movers and shakers in the space? Here are the companies that raised the most money in Q1, as well as the newcomers with the most successful Q1 funding rounds.
Genome-editing giants dominated Q1
Beam Therapeutics led the way with a $135 million Series B in March. Co-founded by CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang, Beam is developing precision genetic medicines that use its groundbreaking CRISPR base editing technology. Base editing modifies individual nucleobases directly through chemical reactions, rather than by snipping and replacing segments of DNA. So, for example, it can convert an A base into a G, or a C into a T.
The potential market for base editor therapeutics is vast. Most genetic errors associated with disease arise from single-letter changes in the genome. In other cases, single-letter variations are known to protect against diseases. By precisely modifying the genome to eliminate errors or make protective changes, Beam believes it can create new treatments for a wide range of diseases. The company is also developing technologies to deliver base editors to different tissues and cell types.
Q1 also saw the first synthetic biology IPO of 2019 with Precision BioSciences raising $126 million in March. Headquartered in Durham, North Carolina, Precision BioSciences is building a next-generation genome editing platform based on a natural enzyme called a homing endonuclease. This DNA-cutting enzyme, commonly found in eukaryotic cells, offers a promising way to edit complex genomes with reduced risk of off-target side effects.
Homing endonucleases are noteworthy because they can precisely recognize long DNA sequences of as many as 40 base pairs. Such long sequences typically occur only once in a genome. Precision BioSciences has engineered a fully synthetic variant of a homing endonuclease for the specific purpose of therapeutic-grade genome editing.
Precision BioSciences is developing gene editing techniques for both medical and agricultural applications, often in partnership with industry heavyweights. For example, they have teamed up with Shire Pharmaceuticals to create universal donor CAR-T cells by knocking out a gene known to cause graft-versus-host disease. A partnership with Gilead Sciences will develop a treatment for chronic hepatitis B, and they are working with agricultural giant Cargill to produce canola that has only about half the usual amount of saturated fat.
Synthetic biology startups demand investor attention
2019 has seen strong investor demand not only for established synthetic biology players, but for startups as well. The number of companies receiving their first funding is likely to exceed the 22 that did so last year.
The biggest launch of Q1 was a $90 million Series A by Motif Ingredients, a spin-off of Ginkgo Bioworks. Motif aims to help other companies, including startups, enter the world of plant-based or cell-grown meat, dairy, and eggs. It is backed by investors including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Louis Dreyfus Company, and Viking Global Investors.
Motif will work with Ginkgo to identify natural ingredients, including the vitamins and proteins found in foods such as milk or meat. It will then produce these ingredients using engineered yeasts and bacteria in a fermentation process similar to brewing beer.
If a particular protein doesn’t provide all the amino acids needed in the human diet, Motif can add a complementary protein to give the final product a fuller nutritional profile. It will develop ingredients for plant-based versions of meat and dairy as well as “cultured meat” grown from animal cells in bioreactors.
Bioengineering and manufacturing are hard for startups to do on their own. Motif has the advantage of Ginkgo’s automation and software platform to help quickly sequence genomes and produce ingredients from microbes. So when startups want to launch new products such as animal-free burgers or chicken nuggets, they will now be able to focus on building their product and their brand. They will no longer have to worry about designing the proteins they need.
Another notable launch in Q1 was SNIPR BIOME, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, which raised $50 million of Series A funding to advance CRISPR-based microbiome drugs to human clinical trials. Consisting of bacteria, viruses, and eukaryotes, the human microbiome has been found to play a significant role in a variety of diseases and health conditions.
The Danish biotech is using CRISPR to selectively target and kill bacteria that contain specific DNA sequences. Potential applications of its technology range from medicine to food quality control. The company will focus initially on precision medicines for difficult-to-treat infections, as well as precision microbiome modulation in autoimmunity and cancer.
In March, Sherlock Biosciences raised $35 million of Series A to develop CRISPR diagnostic tests that are faster, less expensive and easier to use than currently available molecular diagnostics. Its innovative technologies have a wide range of potential applications in areas including oncology, food safety, at-home testing, and disease detection in the field. CRISPR seems poised for early adoption as a diagnostic tool, where concerns about off-target edits are not so problematic. Sherlock hopes to make rapid test design and deployment a standard part of healthcare to address problems such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It will employ a strategy of selective partnering and direct product development to bring its technologies to market.
Strong investor demand for groundbreaking synthetic biology companies, especially platforms, is another sign that the synbio stack continues to evolve and grow. A vibrant synthetic biology startup economy, with access to ever more powerful tools, is laying the groundwork for a wave of innovation that will reach consumers over the next few years.
Meet the innovators and companies, find new opportunities, partner up and discover the potential of the biological industrial revolution. Join us October 1-3 in San Francisco for SynBioBeta 2019