After the last two decades of consumer Internet and mobile innovation, is biotech or bioinformatics the next wave?
There are a handful of San Francisco-based startups that cross the bridge between the worlds of biotechnology and computer science.
Benchling is one of them.
Backed with about $900,000 from YCombinator, SV Angel, Founders Fund’s angel investing fund, Draper Associates and other angels, the company offers DNA editing and analysis software to biotech labs and researchers. With the entire team coming from MIT with skills in both computer science and biology, they’re competing against older, more cumbersome software solutions in the space.
“The quality of software is holding back innovation in life sciences,” said Sajith Wickramasekara, the company’s CEO. “In bio software, the people who code it are disconnected from the work that’s actually being done. So it ends up being crap.” The company’s team includes engineers who have done stints at Twitter, Palantir, Google and Facebook. Their research experience covers genetics, neuroscience, and synthetic biology.
He added that researchers collaborate by e-mailing files or using Excel spreadsheets, which is tedious.
While the company is starting with DNA editing software, Benchling’s longer-term mission is to ultimately create an app store for life sciences.
“We imagine a lab where all the hardware will talk directly to Benchling’s platform. So that when scientists carry out experiments, they won’t need to write anything down, which would cause errors.”
For every kind of data a biotech lab could produce, Wickramasekara envisions cloud-based software that would simplify the design, analysis and sharing of that data. Their second product will interface with imaging machines to analyze pictures from gel electrophoresis experiments
So far, Benchling has 2,000 academics using it and 10 different for-profit companies. They don’t charge academic researchers, but enterprise deals usually cost anywhere from $50 to 100 per person. Already, researchers are using it to make yeast produce petrochemicals without oil, produce new antibiotics and even perform computation with bacteria.
Wickramasekara thinks the market opportunity is huge. Costs for full genome sequencing are falling faster than Moore’s Law would suggest and companies like Illumina have recently unveiled machines that could do it for as little as $1,000. These lower costs will produce an immense wealth of data that will have to be studied. Not only that, there is the emerging field of synthetic biology, which will give rise to all kinds of new designs for biological organisms and parts.
As Benchling picks up more customers, their repository of data will grow and they’ll make it easier for users to search a researcher’s publicly shared data.
They’re not the only ones in this space too. Another startup, Transcriptic, just picked up $4.1 million to become the “Amazon Web Services” for the life sciences. They’re a little bit different than Benchling, as Transcriptic operates a “software and robot-enabled remote lab,” which performs studies and trials on contract for other researchers.