It’s been a big two years for biotech investors. But if you ask Po Bronson, a partner at SOSV’s IndieBio, this trend was probably a long time coming.
“Often, the implication is that everything must be overpriced,” he tells TechCrunch. “But I think more of it is that some major theses in the markets are being proven out,” he says.
Those theses, which range from the future necessity of climate and agriculture solutions to the promise of programmable biology are reflected in IndieBio San Francisco’s new cohort of companies. We spoke to Bronson about what big scientific ideas unite these companies, and finally, what key elements sealed the deal for IndieBio.
Below you’ll find a quick rundown of each company, and one “clincher” factor that set it apart. (Note: This cohort represents IndieBio’s San Francisco-based cohort. The New York-based cohort will debut on January 27).
Soliome – Soliome wants to reinvent the way we develop sunscreen. The team is working on a protein engineering-based procedure to manufacture sunscreen out of basic ingredients, like plant proteins. This new approach, ideally, would help the market pivot away from sunscreens that have been shown to harm the environment, particularly coral reefs and other marine life.
The Clincher: Bronson says he was impressed with the scalability of this business. The complex sunscreen molecules could be made quickly and easily. The $18 billion sunscreen industry isn’t massive, but the ability to scale quickly in that space was a big plus.
Pyrone Systems – Pyrone Systems is using scalable, biology-based techniques to create a new-age biopesticide. Specifically, one that doesn’t kill, but selectively stuns pests like mosquitos. The biopesticide itself is currently being “fast tracked” by the EPA, per IndieBio’s website. The process itself can also be used to make as many as seven other products, per IndieBio, which opens up $40 billion in other markets.
The Clincher: Founder-market fit. Pyrone’s founders are seasoned entrepreneurs, and their team includes people with deep biopesticide expertise.
Solid Ox Motors – Solid Ox is building “range extender” chargers for commercial-scale electric vehicles, which have less time to charge and are more sensitive to fuel prices than private vehicles. At the moment, these chargers are able to cut refueling time in half, at a cheaper price point, per IndieBio’s website.
The Clincher: The idea of low-cost energy and market fit was important for Solid Ox. But it was CEO Jared Moore and his background in engineering that swayed the team.
Puna Bio – Puna Bio specializes in growing microbial extremists — organisms that have been on earth for billions of years. Specifically, this team has managed to grow microbes only found in the La Puna desert (an area described as “Mars on Earth”), where they’ve managed to sustain plant life. Puna is using these microbes to both revitalize degraded soil and increase yields in fertile soil.
The Clincher: Bronson describes these extremophiles as “programs with the ability to transform matter” — an idea he’s been excited about for a while. But what officially sealed the deal was the fact that Puna is poised to tap into both agricultural and land markets. Restoring fertile possibility to unfarmable land can literally change the value of land itself.
Grand Bio – Growth factors are proteins that help stimulate the growth of tissues. They’re a major part of the cell-based meat market, but we’re still learning about them. Grand Bio is looking to help cells produce their own growth factors more efficiently. The company sells growth-factor enhancing supplements for the media in which cells live and grow.
The Clincher: Grand Bio presented a fresh take on a well-known problem. “I love the counterintuitiveness of everybody’s trying to bring down the cost of growth factors, making them in all sorts of systems. And they’re just like, No, we’ll just make the cells run longer on a little bit of growth factors,” he said.
Sea & Believe – Sea & Believe founder Jennifer O’Brien has toured Ireland’s beaches, looking for the best tasting seaweed she could find. She found it on an Irish beach and has now started growing it into a scalable food source. Sea & Believe already has partnerships with Wageningen University, The University of Limerick and Clextral.
The Clincher: O’Brien has a solid and compelling founder story says Bronson. But she also has a plan to scale a seaweed-based food business that has a specific niche: a strain of seaweed that is known for its flavor. Capturing that supply chain, he says, was of interest. (Full disclosure, he has yet to give the seaweed a try himself, but has plans to when a forthcoming shipment arrives.)
Matagene – Matagene has focused on engineering a single enzyme with the power to change how efficiently crops use critical resources, like starch. Ultimately, the product can alter how plants use starch to increase crop yields by 90% in potatoes, 41% in canola, and 24% in sorghum, per IndieBio.
The Clincher: Bronson notes many investors overlook the potential in agricultural innovation. Instead, he looks at the sector similar to pharma: “If you make one big, mega crop, it’s like a blockbuster drug,” he says. Matagene’s technology is also applicable to many crops (so you’re not pinned down with just one), and, he says, can be applied in food, industrial and carbon markets.
Veloz Bio – Veloz Bio has developed a rapid protein production system (think animal proteins that are grown in crops). The company can scale up and grow new proteins in less than six months, without the use of a bioreactor.
The Clincher: These founders have an expertise in critical aspects of protein production: supercritical fluid extraction and membrane purification. They’ve also run large-scale businesses before in the Mexican food system. “I wanted industry pros coming at it with the point of view and real ability to scale and extract,” says Bronson.
Prothegen – There are two primary routes that cells follow toward death. One of them is called ferroptosis, a process in which the cell defense mechanisms fail, and they’re overwhelmed by rogue molecules. Prothegen aims to develop drugs that can control that death cycle — applying it to some cells and restraining it in others.
The Clincher: Bronson said Prothegen was able to demonstrate a high level of expertise in the ferroptosis area. “The part that put us over the top was spending time with professor Scott Dixon [a discoverer of ferroptosis],” he says. The specific challenges associated with manipulating this process were robust, and Prothegen demonstrated the ability to meet that high bar.
Wayfinder Biosciences – Wayfinder Bio is using RNA-based biosensors to control editing molecules (like CRISPR). This allows once-permanent changes created to respond to an environment — for instance, imagine switching certain genes “on” and “off” in response to changing conditions in the body. Wayfinder is a spinout from the Center for Synthetic Biology at the University of Washington.
The Clincher: Wayfinder was an example of “programmable” logic in biology. Fine tuning biological systems with precision, says Bronson, is a key idea.
Cellens – Cellens has developed a urine-based bladder cancer test that goes beyond screening. The test also monitors cell surfaces to help determine stage and aggressiveness of cancer. At the moment, the test can detect bladder cancer with 94% accuracy, and in pre-clinical trials at Dartmouth, Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the University of Washington.
The Clincher: Both Cellens and ProtonIntel (see below) speak to one of IndieBio’s theses: “A lot of where the money being spent is in ongoing long-term patient monitoring,” says Bronson. “And a lot of the pain in the ass for the patient is that they need not just a screening test, they need a true biological marker.” Cellens is built around measuring patient progression in enough detail to drive clinical decisions, rather than simply screen for a disease.
ProtonIntel – ProtonIntel is developing a rapid, continuous potassium monitor. Potassium is a critical element that drives the heart’s electrical signals, and, in people with kidney failure, potassium levels can spiral out of control. ProtonIntel is designed to measure those potassium levels before problems, like heart attacks, arise.
The Clincher: Bronson says that ProtonIntel has taken on an especially difficult scientific problem: measuring potassium in the body. But previous experience in this market has suggested that this service is truly needed, and could further disrupt the dialysis industry (which, after decades of stagnation, is already seeing changes).
Unlocked Labs – Unlocked labs is a consumer probiotic company whose first products focus on reducing oxalic acid and uric acid — two products in the body responsible for kidney stones and gout, respectively. The company is aimed at improving microbiome health, and harnessing that system to reduce toxins in the body.
The Clincher: The first generation of microbiome products, says Bronson, were centered around balancing that colony of microbes. The next generation, he argues, is to provide “specific and targeted benefits.” Unlocked Labs he says, fits in that niche.
*An earlier version of this article miscounted the amount of startups in this cohort. There are 13.