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Emulate Gets $28M to Roll Out “Plug and Play” Organ-on-Chip Tech

Xconomy Boston — 

One step at a time, Emulate has been trying to use microchip systems to simulate organs and diseases for testing—a lung with asthma or dangerous fluid buildup, and perhaps someday a brain with Alzheimer’s. It’s part of an ambitious goal of helping to change preclinical drug development and improve the efficiency of drug-making. Now Emulate has gotten more financial backing to give it a go.

Boston-based Emulate says today it has raised a $28 million Series B round. That means the Cambridge, MA-based startup has raised $40 million in equity funding since it was spun out of Harvard University’s Wyss Institute two years ago, and it continues a quick ascent in what is a tough, increasingly competitive field. Emulate president Geraldine Hamilton says the company now has several partners—it’s only been able to publicly disclose two, pharmaceutical companies Merck and Johnson & Johnson—and will use the cash to grow its ranks from 40 employees to 85 by the end of the year.

The funding comes from a diverse group of new backers, from Burlington, NC-based clinical testing giant LabCorp., to venture firms OS Fund and Atel Ventures, to the non-profit ALS Finding a Cure foundation. (All of Emulate’s founding investors, among them Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, were also involved.) That reflects the broad type of company Emulate hopes to become. It wants to make “organ-on-a-chip” systems—living human cells on micro-engineered chips—for a slew of different organs that can recreate the state of a variety of diseases, so researchers can test potential drugs on them and gain confidence that they would affect a human being in the same way.

This isn’t an easy task. It requires lots of data, for starters. There are plenty of other companies, and even academic labs, with competing technologies. And Emulate has got to become profitable to achieve the type of breadth and scale it’s hoping for. Though the company is generating revenue through its existing partnerships—Hamilton won’t say how many Emulate has, or how much cash it’s been bringing in through these deals—it’s not quite there yet.

Still, Emulate is making progress. In October, it published a paper with Merck in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Methods showing how its lung on a chip could help model asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s gotten grant money from the Michael J. Fox Foundation to do some work in Parkinson’s disease. It’s accumulating partners, and Hamilton says the company is working with some of them on chips that recreate skin and intestinal tissue as well. Last month the company moved into a new 20,000-square-foot headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District, to accommodate its growth.

The Series B round is being used to continue the expansion, and get Emulate to profitability. It’ll help Emulate develop microchip systems that recreate the function of other, more complex organs (a heart, brain, or kidney) and diseases (cancers and infectious and neurodegenerative disorders). The new cash is also enabling the commercial launch of what Hamilton calls a “plug and play” system for Emulate’s technology, something known as a “Human Emulation System.” Before, Emulate needed to send engineering experts with particular know-how to help set up its systems in labs. Now most of that is automated.

“You have the chips, you have the instrumentation, and you have the software [in] one system,” Hamilton says. “It will fit into the regular workflows of any general labs. It’s really what we envisioned for the product when we launched back in 2014.”

Emulate will launch the product later this year. Hamilton won’t say what the company will price the product at, or detail its model for payment. But the company will need to expand its current partnerships, accumulate more data, and get labs across the country to adopt its system to continue the type of growth it’s been able to achieve so far. (Check out this story for more on Emulate, its technology, the competition, and the challenges ahead.)

“It’ll be a really amazing milestone for us to get that system into the marketplace,” Hamilton says.