Biomanufacturing as a Service: Culture Biosciences lands Series A for its bioreactors accessed via the Cloud

March 14, 2019 |

In California, a new company has launched called Culture Biosciences and today we’d like to take you inside it. It’s a story about making the bioeconomy radically more efficient at the point of developing and deploying product, by offering Biomanufacturing-as-a-Service.

This month, Culture Bio, based in the industrial biotech hub of South San Francisco, nabbed $5.5 million in funding led by Section 32, with participation from Refactor Capital and Verily. Culture will use the funding to expand its digital biomanufacturing platform and develop additional bioreactor facilities. They’re up to 150 bioreactors already and now you design and manage high-throughput fermentation experiments from the cloud.

Now, third-party manufacturing is not new — tollers are an integral part of industry (though we’re short on them), but what about scale-up itself?

The value proposition

Here’s the Culture Bio proposition, see if you agree:

This scale-up process is bottlenecked by legacy approaches to fermentation, which require companies to either build in-house fermentation facilities or contract an outside lab to run their experiments. Both approaches are limited in speed, flexibility and convenience, contributing to lengthy lab-to-market timelines that can stretch well beyond five years and cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars in R&D expenses.

Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? There’s not a company out there in the fermentation space that didn’t long to get through scale up faster and cheaper, not to mention the investors.

Industrial biotech, in some ways has turned into less of a purely biological challenge and into a physics problem, sort of — the conquest of time and space. The time factor — and the costs that come with time — are well understood, as Culture Bio’s analysis shows.

But there’s the space problem, too. Good companies in hot tech corridors struggle to find enough of it as they rapidly expand, struggling companies find they have too much of it, and great minds working in obscure regions of the world struggle to build out world-class bioreactor-replete lab and small manufacturing space at all.

The infrastructure crunch

The whole thing turns companies into managers of their own infrastructure, instead of managers of innovation. Not long ago I was visiting with a pair of hot-company biotech CEOs, and instead of talking about innovation, or market trends or partnerships, the talk was all about leasing space.

What is supposed to be:

Design -> Build —> Test —>  Learn

is rapidly becoming:

Build Build Design Build Build Build Expand Rebuild Test Build Build Lease Build Build Learn Build Sale-Lease-back Build Build Build and Build.

The industry is turning into a variant of the Monty Python Spam sketch. We’re drowning in purpose-built, self-owned bioreactor fleets in a world that is supposed to be heading in the general direction of Uber, Lyft and shared everything.

Lyft of the Bioeconomy, and smarts with the service, too

So, think of Culture Bio in some ways as the Lyft of the bioeconomy — there when you need it, accessible via the internet, you get an amazing improvement in terms of how your remote experiments are proceeding vs the old days of fermentation (or the old days of hopefully flagging down a taxi), and you get the ride without buying the car.

So, Culture is developing a digital biomanufacturing platform to enable companies to run, monitor and analyze bioreactor experiments for faster and more convenient biotech product development. Culture’s platform, which integrates best-in-class bioreactors, cloud monitoring capabilities and remote operations, is currently being used by leading biotechnology companies to optimize their R&D processes. 

Customers who join the Culture network have access to custom built and engineered bioreactors equipped with novel robotic systems for more efficient operation, cloud monitoring capabilities to gain real-time insights, fast data transfer and sample shipping, and same-day process design changes. Customers can access the Culture system through any cloud-connected device, and can remotely manage their experiment as if they were running it themselves.

Cases in point

And customers are jumping on board, though many of them are in stealth mode. The earth-shattering technology in development by Pivot Bio, though, is one we know. The highly interesting company Asimov is another.

Perhaps the best case in point, so far, is Geltor. Here’s a company which raised $18 million last fall and is producing animal-free collagen proteins for the cosmetics industry — and now is poised to join the food sector with its latest raise.Internally, based on their original use cases, they already had a number of bioreactors internally, but with their expanding prospects have been doing a ton more development, and that usually necessitates building out a lab to sustain all the development work. And, at the same time, develop processes to run 24, 36, 48 experiments at the same time, to go through more process variants and more rapidly run experiments. It’s a race, after all, the drive to adapt digital biology to food production — to the victor goeth the spoils, and it is a race that goes to the swiftest as well as the best. The big build out takes time, money and aggravations. A diversion of focus.

That’s where a partner like Culture Bio comes in — expensing the throughput without the big build — circumventing the Spam sketch build aspects of this industry.

Other uses abound — not just an outsourced option, but access to world-class manufacturing expertise, and world-class reporting and analytics, wherever you are. Organisms will still be shipped by the usual methods from Culture Bio to the production sites of the client company, as is done in moving from lab to scale today — but who knows whether there will be a biological equivalent of #D printing very soon. That’s for another column, another day. For now, clients can design and monitor via data streams and live cameras, and in this way labs become part of the acceleration across the whole of manufacturing and biotechnology in particular.

Faster helps in the obvious way of bringing solutions to market more quickly, and being able to adapt more readily to evolving customer needs. And cheaper helps in the obvious ways. But consider one other aspect and that is the time value of money compared to the risks undertaken. Ten year build outs need huge returns on investment to meet corporate investment hurdle rates, and dictate that only the biggest and most obvious and mostly-proven out ideas can be undertaken. The high cost in time — and the returns that long timelines demand — restrict innovation to known markets and uses, and the dangers of established commodity markets, more than any single factor. 

The Bottom Line

Reducing the time, we reduce the investment hurdle — presto, more risky innovations can be undertaken, wither because the markets are less proven or the efficacy of the solution is less proven out. Brining the timelines down not only makes it faster and cheaper to make new things, we can make newer and bolder things.

So, Biomanufacturing-as-a-Service — not a brand new idea in the world that CEO Will Patrick and several of his co-founders have been inhabiting (a lot of Google people in and around this one) — but certainly something more on the novel side of industrial biotech. It’ll be fascinating to see how this one plays out.

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