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Bacteria cells under microscope, from iStock

How Culture Biosciences is helping biomanufacture agrifood, pharma products from microbes at scale

March 4, 2020

You may have heard a growing number of agri-foodtech startups talk about how they’re “harnessing nature” to create new products and technologies. It could be they’ve discovered a soil microbe that can help crops grow under tough conditions or uptake nitrogen with more efficacy, or they’ve genetically designed a microbe to secrete a particular protein that can be used as an ingredient in new food products or materials — an obvious example is the animal-free arena.

Biomanufacturing is the term used to describe the process of using biological systems as opposed to chemistry to produce commercial biomaterials. Crudely this means using certain microbes — naturally-occurring species or genetically designed — to produce certain materials. Yeast is a good example; you feed it sugar to make alcohol. With the advance of tools like genetic editing, biomanufacturing stands to increasingly replace chemical, petroleum-based manufacturing across multiple product types, creating new possibilities without the limitations of chemistry, but also potentially leading to a significant reduction in the environmental footprint of manufacturing across product types.

“As the population expands and demands on resources grow, biomanufacturing has the potential to deliver products that are more sustainable than extracted carbon, safer than small-molecule chemistry, and more efficient than fed livestock protein,” Dan Phillips from agri-foodtech investor Cultivian Sandbox tells AFN. 

But at scale, it’s still expensive, complicated and takes a long time.

“Typically it takes five years for a biomanufactured product to get to market,” says Will Patrick, CEO of Culture Biosciences (Culture), a startup that was founded in 2016 to change this. “We were so inspired by the possibility of biomanufactured products, whether for proteins or crop treatments or healthcare products, that we wondered how we could make them go faster and get to market more quickly for a bigger impact.”

Today, Culture has closed a $15 million Series A round led by agri-foodtech’s longest-running VC Cultivian Sandbox and joined by another new investor The Production Board. The Production Board was founded by David Friedberg, the founder of Climate Corp, agtech’s first digital unicorn that sold to Monsanto in 2013. He will join the board alongside Cultivian’s Dan Philips. Existing investors Verily Life Sciences, Section 32, YCombinator, and E14 Fund also joined the round.

“Every biomanufacturing project starts with strain engineering – changing the genome to get the microbe to make the molecule you want at a high enough rate of production to be economical. There has been a myriad of tools launched in the past few years to accelerate this work and reduce its cost, by several orders of magnitude. This includes low-cost rapid sequencing, new gene-editing tools, ML-driven assistance, and higher throughout screening systems (to run and measure experiments). But scaling-up — taking a strain from lab to production — remains the bottleneck. Culture provides the best set of tools to automate and accelerate that scale-up. Combined with strain engineering tools, we should see this technology enabling accelerated growth in biomanufacturing,” Friedberg tells AFN.

So how is Culture helping?

When a company has an organism capable of making a material it wants, it next needs to figure out the right growth conditions to enable that production at scale. That involves feeding it the right thing and not the wrong thing — Patrick referenced yeast as example here saying that it can be used to produce many different things but you need to avoid certain feedstock and practices to stop it producing alcohol. The temperature of the bioreactor, the PH and the availability of oxygen are other examples of the 30-50 different parameters that can impact microbial production.

But building bioreactors to test is expensive and it wouldn’t be economical for companies of all sizes to start building that infrastructure in-house. So Culture is offering biomanufacturing-as-a-service. Clients can log into the Culture website, reserve space in one of its 100 bioreactors for a certain amount of time, design an experiment, and then collect and analyze data from their testing to determine next steps in the process. Those might be a re-design of the organism to secrete more material, a change in feedstock or conditions inside the bioreactor.

“The whole point of this is to enable all different types of product companies to work more quickly and not have to build out capability internally,” he adds. “The next step for our customers is to take their production to much larger biomanufacturing facilities, think of brewery-sized steel tanks that can be the size of a building, so they need to fully optimise that process on a smaller scale first and that’s where we help.”

“We have learned that the key challenge to commercializing new bio-based products is developing and scaling manufacturing processes in a cost-efficient and timely manner,” added Phillips of Cultivian Sandbox in a statement. “We’ve watched many companies try to solve the same scaling challenges by investing in expensive R&D and production facilities and/or struggling to scale processes through contract manufacturers. We think Culture is perfectly positioned to develop new technologies that solves these challenges, enabling the entire industry to flourish.”

A VC investment?

100 bioreactors is a lot of bioreactors for a startup, and in venture capital terms, potentially too asset-heavy and expensive to be an attractive investment, where investors often prefer asset-light businesses like software. Patrick says that the company might consider using more typical infrastructure, asset financing tools like debt in the future, but that it’s “fairly capital-efficient already.” Because Culture builds its bioreactors for its own purposes, Patrick says it’s able to leave certain features out that might appear in more generic, off-the-shelf bioreactors, and thereby cut costs.

Cultivian’s Phillips backed this up telling AFN: “It’s actually quite asset-light. Culture is able to assemble its small, single-use bioreactors in a cost effective manner, and expand capacity in tandem with customer demand. This allows the company to quickly translate modest capex to meaningful, recurring revenue.”

“The team is exceptional. They’ve developed a purpose-built solution that provides immediate and clear benefit to customers in terms of speed, performance and cost. Fermentation optimization has been a bottleneck in biological manufacturing, a category that we believe is set to take off across many (if not most) industries. Culture is an enabler of this broader trend,” he added.

Who are Culture’s clients?

Culture has 30 clients already spanning agrifood (60%) and biopharma (40%), including Pivot Bio, the nitrogen-fixing microbial crop input company, C16 Biosciences, the company culturing a palm-oil alternative, and Zymmergen, the microbe design company.

This new funding will be used to triple Culture’s current bioreactor capacity and to develop additional software tools to further digitize biomanufacturing R&D. “This funding will support our goal of making biomanufacturing R&D a digital experience by enabling scientists to manage their entire R&D workflow in our software application,” Patrick wrote in a statement.

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