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

8/18/14Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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the kind of FDA scrutiny faced by 23andMe, a Mountain View, CA-based personal genome sequencing company that used to tell customers how their genetic variations might correlate with health risks. In the future, however, uBiome will deepen its microbiome testing to identify specific strains of bacteria that cause disease—which would be a diagnostic assay, Richman says.

After an angel round of fundraising, uBiome is now completing a Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz, the noted tech investment firm that backed Instagram and Pinterest. Richman declined to disclose the amount. The round had begun before uBiome was accepted by Y Combinator. Other companies in YC’s first biotech class say the summer session has put them closer to potential funding sources.

“Y Combinator is one of the best places to learn fundraising,” says Jason Kelly, co-founder of Boston, MA-based Ginkgo Bioworks. The accelerator’s mentors encouraged him to approach tech investors he wouldn’t previously have considered as likely prospects. “We’re getting interest from venture firms you would never think of as biotech investors,” Kelly says.

Founded in 2008, Ginkgo has built an automated, 11,000-square-foot synthetic biology foundry to create custom-tailored microbes for industry customers. The yeast cells and other microbes have been genetically modified to produce fragrances, natural pesticides, cosmetic ingredients, and nutritional compounds.

Kelly sees a strong kinship with tech companies. He says designing a microbe is like writing software. “DNA looks like digital code,” he says. His PhD biologists spend most of their time at computers rather than in wet labs, while technicians and liquid-handling robots execute the assembly of Ginkgo’s tailor-made micro-organisms.

Y Combinator’s expertise has also helped Ginkgo boost sales, Kelly says. The company signed six contracts over the 12 months before the summer session began. “During YC, we added three more,” he says.

Down the road, Ginkgo might become a developer of therapeutics to “heal” an unhealthy microbiome, Kelly says. The company has designed microbes to attack bacterial genes that make them resistant to antibiotics, though for the time being that’s not a front-burner project. Still, Kelly suspects that the microbiome therapeutics of the future might not be drugs, he says. “I think there’s a decent chance they’ll look like engineered organisms,” Kelly says.

Of Y Combinator’s five biotechs, One Codex is the purest data company. Like Google, the San Francisco, CA-based startup wants to organize a world of information by creating a search engine. But it’s the world of DNA sequences, now compiled in various government data banks, which One Codex co-founder and CEO Nick Greenfield sees as ill-connected silos.

Like the early World Wide Web, Greenfield says, the current collections of sequencing data are useful for researchers who know what they’re looking for, but they’re not linked to each other. Each databank has the equivalent of a table of contents. But One Codex wants to create a platform for a blind search: enter a DNA sequence and bring up known references to the same stretch of code, along with a wealth of annotations from multiple databanks about the possible genetic functions linked to it.

One Codex’s first customers might be state public health labs or food safety agencies that guard against infectious disease, Greenfield says. They could input raw DNA data from a mixed sample of bacteria, and the future search engine could identify the microbial species and strains, he says: “They could relate a specific strain of bacteria to a specific outbreak.”

The search engine could later be useful for biodefense and diagnostics. When DNA sequencing becomes a routine part of clinical care, doctors might decide … 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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