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Y Combinator, Move Over For IndieBio: A Second Biotech Accelerator

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Y Combinator, which set off a whirlwind of skeptical commentary when it opened its highly ranked tech accelerator program to biotechnology startups last spring, now has some company.

SOS Ventures, the international VC firm that already holds accelerator programs for software and hardware company founders, is launching a separate accelerator called IndieBio in San Francisco and the city of Cork, Ireland, for entrepreneurial teams in fields that include synthetic biology.

Like Mountain View, CA-based Y Combinator, SOS Ventures is betting that innovators in certain biotech sectors—bioinformatics, automated lab technology, and the intensive form of genetic engineering known as synthetic biology—can profit from the jumpstart delivered by accelerator programs. IndieBio co-founder Arvind Gupta, a partner at SOS Ventures, says the firm is trying to create a financial and technology ecosystem that allows biotech entrepreneurs the same freedom as app developers to succeed outside of big companies or universities.

“These accelerators are a third way for people to build their own dreams and secure their own futures,” Gupta says.

Gupta joined SOS Ventures in September 2013 with a primary goal of setting up an accelerator for synthetic biology. “My first love was genetic engineering,’’ at UC Santa Barbara in the mid-1990s, he says. Synthetic biologists re-design metabolic pathways in organisms—often microbes such as yeast—and harness them to make products such as fuels and useful chemicals. Technology advances in recent years have made synthetic biology easier and faster. The task of assembling novel DNA strands is now similar to writing code at a computer, he says.

SOS Ventures partner Bill Liao ran a pilot synthetic biology accelerator for six startups in Cork, Ireland, early this year, with outcomes that encouraged him to team with Gupta to found IndieBio. One of the Cork graduates was Muufri (Moo-free, get it?), a startup founded to use bioengineered microbes to make an “animal-free” milk substitute containing similar proteins and fats, but no lactose or cholesterol.

SOS Ventures now plans to run two IndieBio sessions in San Francisco (starting in January and September), and one in Cork (beginning in May). In November, IndieBio is moving into a 15,000-square-foot space on two floors in downtown San Francisco. In the building at 485 Jessie Street, startups will occupy both office space and lab space at no charge. SOS Ventures will also kick in $35,000 in seed money in exchange for 8 percent equity. Applications for about 10 spots in the first 100-day San Francisco program are due by November 1.

Gupta says the benefits for startups are comparable to those at Y Combinator, which offers $120,000 in seed funding but doesn’t provide office or lab space. Both accelerators supply mentors and contacts with potential follow-on investors.

In Y Combinator’s recent summer session, the five teams of biotech founders made up a small fraction of the 80 participants, who were primarily involved in software development and other hi-tech projects. Two were synthetic biology companies—Boston, MA-based Ginkgo Bioworks, whose automated foundry produces bioengineered microbes to clients’ specifications; and San Francisco-based Glowing Plant, which makes a small, luminous plant that contains genes from fireflies and marine bacteria. The members of YC’s first “biotech class” gave high marks to the program.

Gupta says he thinks IndieBio startups will benefit from its concentrated focus on synthetic biology. But Gupta doesn’t see IndieBio as a rival to Y Combinator, or incubators such as QB3 at UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus.

“None of us are competing,” he says. Instead, they’re creating an overall environment that supports biotechnology companies in their early stages, he says.

“If we can’t help build that ecosystem, whatever businesses we help build will fail,” Gupta says.