Synthetic biology is advancing faster and more cheaply than ever before—and now many startups are getting swept up in that promise.
I was about to pick up my cell phone when I realized I still had rhino horn lotion all over my hands. It wouldn't come off. The lotion was surprisingly thick and creamy, and when I brought it to my nose it smelled faintly of a musty old couch. Once I finally gathered enough tissues to wipe the lotion off, I realized that my hands were noticeably softer. No rhinos were harmed in the process of softening my hands, however.
I was checking out IndieBio, a new biotech accelerator in San Francisco where early-stage biotech ventures get mentorship, access to lab space, and seed funding. When I visited out the space, IndieBio had been open for just two weeks, but was already buzzing with scientists working on projects that sound like they're straight out of Silicon Valley's collective vision of an ideal future. Everything a science-based startup might want is available in the space, from basic biotech lab equipment (centrifuges and lots of machines with three-letter names) to a cell culture area and a designated hardware room.
"We want everyone who comes through to feel more entrepreneurial and start companies, even if they fail," says Arvind Gupta, co-founder of IndieBio and partner at SOS Ventures. The hope is that IndieBio's support can allow biotech entrepreneurs to flourish without feeling the need to work inside university or big corporate infrastructures.
When Gupta and his co-founder Ryan Bethencourt—a former senior director of prize development at XPRIZE—talk about the accelerator, they tend to describe it in terms of how it could lead to solutions that provide planetary peace and longer, healthier lives for us all—salvation through science, essentially.
"We don't want to end up in a class war. We want everyone to have food, clean water, and a long life expectancy," says Gupta.
Taking a tour of the lab, it's not hard to get swept up in the promise of the startups within, many of which are working on synthetic biology projects that are only now possible because of advances in the field that have made biotech equipment cheaper and faster than ever before.
The startups in IndieBio are all working on big-picture issues. Pembient, the company that concocted my rhino horn lotion, wants to fight animal poaching by creating synthetic versions of the items that poachers want—starting with rhino horns. In South Africa alone, 1,215 rhinos were poached in 2014, causing the world to lose 4% of the total rhino population. Part of the problem is that rhino horns are used as traditional medicine (for reducing fevers, among other things) in parts of Asia.
Pembient's first prototype product is a powder that's genetically identical to real rhino horn. Next, the startup wants to create a full 3-D printed horn, using the powder as a substrate. "Right now, we're taking the biochemical approach, but we're technologically agnostic. Maybe in the future we'll do tissue engineering. Whatever works for the market," says co-founder George Bonaci. Eventually, Pembient plans to work on other in-demand animal products.
Sitting alongside Pembient in the lab is Clara Foods, a company taking a somewhat similar approach to a different issue: the unsustainable and cruel nature of factory farms. Instead of manufacturing rhino horns, Clara Foods is making lab-grown egg whites. "We pick each other's brains. It's probably the mostly helpful thing here, that everybody shares," says cofounder Arturo Elizondo.
By producing egg whites in the lab, Clara hopes to create more affordable and consistent egg whites that are salmonella-free. Plus, no factory farms are necessary.
The co-founders, who met at a food tech conference, are working on a proof of concept, reconstituting the egg white's main proteins in the lab. "We're far along on paper. The hard part is making sure it tastes exactly like an egg white," says Elizondo. "We want to produce a product identical in terms of culinary properties. There's a chef downstairs in the building that wants to bake with it."
By the end of their 100-day stay at IndieBio, the Clara Foods founders want to prove that they can reconstitute an egg white in yeast, and get the taste right, too.
Nearly everyone in the accelerator is bioengineering something that was once unsustainable or impractical, it seems. A startup called Bioloop is genetically engineering bacteria to overproduce cellulose and bioplastic, all to create sustainable textiles that don't require acres of lands and loads of pesticides. "We want to give people what they want, and push the bad things out of the equation," says cofounder Jennifer Kaehms.
Then there are all the medical biotech startups. They include Orphidia, which is creating a "lab on a chip" to diagnose dozens of diseases with a single drop of blood; Extem, a startup that has come up with a way to mass produce stem cells in much larger quantities than are currently available; and Affinity, which aims to bring down the cost of developing new biopharmaceutical drugs.
These are ambitious projects, and IndieBio is going to eventually need a bigger space (the current space is very cozy) . Soon, the accelerator plans to open a 15,000-square-foot space downtown. In addition to the San Francisco accelerator, IndieBio also runs a sister program in Cork, Ireland.
"The goal here is to triple the lifespan of human beings. We can't have triple the natural resources, so we need to be more efficient," says Gupta.
By: ARIEL SCHWARTZ