From Glowing Plants To Nanodiamonds: Y Combinator's Biotechs Debut

8/18/14Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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of a small plant made luminous with the addition of genes from fireflies and marine bacteria—the kind of genes that can be ordered from commercial suppliers.

Glowing Plant raised $484,000—and the hackles of protesters—with its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in June 2013. The startup drew contributions from more than 8,000 supporters who were promised glowing plants, or their seeds, in return. But critics of genetically modified plants later influenced Kickstarter to change its policy and forbid its crowdfunders to distribute any genetically modified organism as a reward for donors.

That new policy didn’t hinder Glowing Plant. On the advice of YC partners, the startup has been showing the prototype of its softly luminous plant, commonly known as mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), to some of its Kickstarter donors this summer. The startup is scaling up production to ship them out as promised, Evans says. On the company’s own website, pre-orders for the plants continue to come in at the rate of $10,000 a month, he says. On top of those revenues, Glowing Plant will also receive the $120,000 that Y Combinator contributes to each of its startups in return for a seven percent equity stake.

The company is still tweaking genes to make the plant shine more brightly. But the glowing houseplant remains a novelty. Evans more ambitiously thinks that larger versions of his plants could form radiant landscaping to replace streetlights. By using the techniques of synthetic biology—an advanced form of genetic engineering—Evans says plants could be green, and not just in color, by producing eco-friendly fuel, or replacing chemical air fresheners by cleaning the air. They might also grow in salty ocean water, or without the need for fertilizer. “We’re using the glowing plant as a beachhead,” Evans says.

Like its YC classmate Glowing Plant, uBiome is also taking advantage of a better technical infrastructure and new business models. UBiome reaped a $351,000 haul on crowdfunding campaign Indiegogo, allowing it to launch in late 2012 in the midst of increasing interest in the health implications of the “microbiome”—the trillions of micro-organisms found in and on the human body. The campaign helped uBiome build a commercial kit. For $89, individuals submit a sample from their nose, skin or other body site, and uBiome uses gene sequencing to identify the mix of bacterial species contained in the sample. Customers can find out how their bacterial population compares with that of vegans, people with certain illnesses, those who have just taken a course of antibiotics, and other groups, says CEO and co-founder Jessica Richman. With a follow-up test, customers can track personal changes. For example, they might want to know how a change in diet or medicines affects the mix of their intestinal bacteria.

Richman says uBiome’s kit lets so-called citizen scientists try to answer questions about themselves, instead of letting “science [be] driven by questions that institutions ask about them,” Richman says.

But uBiome has also scored nearly 100 contracts with institutions exploring their own questions, Richman says. These customers include universities such as Stanford, as well as companies developing products such as shampoo, toothpaste, cosmetics, and drugs. Richman says she can’t reveal names of those industrial clients, which cover the cost of test kits for individuals who participate in their studies. As a big data company, uBiome is using robotic research tools, machine learning, and outsourced high-throughput gene sequencing to build an international database of human microbiomes. It has analyzed 15,000 samples so far from individual consumers and client-backed studies.

The San Francisco startup doesn’t identify any specific microbiome profile as a standard of normalcy or health. It’s careful not to position itself as a diagnostic service, which would trigger … Next Page »

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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