Internet-connected lab equipment aims to reduce overhead and speed up bio-manufacturing for businesses around the world.
As someone immersed in the biotechnology sector, I’ve seen my share of startup stumbles. Giddy teams of brilliant scientists promising the next generation of this or sustainable that often fail to deliver, not because their core ideas are faulty but because they so often fail to get their arms around the true complexity of manufacturing.
Having a great idea for how biotechnology might improve lives is one thing — think compostable plastics or alternative meats. But bringing those bold visions into reality is quite another.
That’s where Culture Biosciences comes in. Based in South San Francisco, the company has been stocking up on the type of expensive laboratory equipment — bioreactors — that most other biotechnology firms pour millions of dollars into. Culture then rents its physical lab equipment out to paying customers via an online portal. Think AWS, but for biology.
In this way, Culture is aiming to permanently reduce the complexity of biomanufacturing, allowing its customers to skip expensive investments in equipment and bring their goods to market sooner.
Culture today announced that it plans to triple its bioreactor capacity thanks to a new $15 million Series A, led by Cultivian Sandbox Ventures with participation from The Production Board and existing investors. For full disclosure, I’m also an investor in this company through my role as an Operating Partner at DCVC.
Bioreactors are used to grow cells, which in turn can grow almost anything. Recent breakthroughs in synthetic biology now mean that scientists can program living cells more precisely than ever. “Synthetic biology and biofabrication hold the answers to so many of the challenges we face today,” says Will Patrick, Culture’s co-founder and CEO.
“We spent time talking to scientists working in industrial biotechnology, learning about their work in detail. There were so many companies working on potentially game-changing products, ranging from alternative food proteins to bio-based chemicals to life-saving medicines. Yet, they all faced formidable challenges in taking their lab-scale discoveries and turning them into commercially viable products at scale. We heard time and time again that the process of scaling-up from the bench to production was time-consuming, risky, and expensive. There were also so many stories about potentially promising products failing to be scaled-up to production successfully.”
Culture already services some notable customers, including Zymergen, which is breeding microbes that produce value-added molecules for a number of industries, and Clara Foods, which is working to fast-track new sources of animal-free protein. Other new customers include Nektar Therapeutics, C16 Biosciences, and Boost Biomes.
It’s a business model built on trust. As Culture expands, its stockpile of bioreactors — which could soon exceed 300 — must keep up with customers’ demands. By offering a reliable cloud service that can quickly be scaled up or down according to need, Culture hopes to save its customers lots of money in the long run.
“Our mission is to build an end-to-end platform where bioprocess scientists can manage their entire workflow in our software application,” said Patrick. “In our conversations with scientists, we identified the bench-scale bioreactor lab as a key bottleneck in the scale-up process. Running bench-scale bioreactors to screen strains and develop bioprocesses is critical for developing new products, but it is also time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive.”
At the moment, Patrick tells me that his customer base is roughly 60 percent biopharma and 40 percent industrial biotechnology. “But I think it will flip. I’m really big on the industrial biology sector. These spaces are massive, and the opportunity is so huge.”
Platforms that broadly enable scientists, engineers, and innovators to do more for less could add fuel to the already hot synthetic biology sector. I recently wrote about how innovations in bio-nylon could soon unlock a $10 billion sector, how investments into synthetic biology made here on Earth could aid in 21st-century efforts to explore and inhabit space, and how synthetic biology companies are now racing to stop coronavirus.
Disruptors like Culture Biosciences renew my hope that this biological revolution is here to stay.
Thank you to Ian Haydon for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about—including Culture Biosciences—are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest — here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors. I’m an operating partner at DCVC, which is an investor in Culture Bioscience.
Originally published on Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2020/03/04/with-15m-series-a-culture-biosciences-is-growing-cells-in-the-cloud/1