Startup Battlefield winner Cellino grabs $80M Series A

Cellino Bio’s founder Nabiha Saklayen didn’t initially intend to enter TechCrunch Disrupt 2021’s Startup Battlefield — it was her PR advisor who threw the startup’s name in the ring as a wildcard entry. But after a busy weekend for the team, Cellino walked away with the prize anyway. Just a few months later, Cellino has more momentum in the form of an $80 million Series A. 

Cellino is looking to automate the process we use to create human cells, most specifically, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). IPSCs are made from other cell types, like blood cells, then transformed back into stem cells, which can eventually differentiate into many different cell types. TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez covered Cellino’s initial pitch and overview here, but in short, their autonomous process would allow scientists to produce large quantities of high-quality iPSCs and scale-up studies in the regenerative medicine space. That’s a novel area of medicine in which new cell-based therapies help the body regrow tissues damaged by disease and aging. 

This Series A was led by Leaps by Bayer, 8VC and Humboldt Fund. The round also includes Felicis Ventures, other unnamed investors and existing investors The Engine and Khosla Ventures. Cellino’s total funding is $96 million to date, per a company press release. 

There are some scientific areas where regenerative medicine is showing interesting progress. For instance, embryonic stem-cell derived islet cells have been able to restore insulin producing capabilities to one man with diabetes, per a clinical trial conducted by Vertex Pharmaceuticals. But iPSCs, which are not derived from embryos, have also made remarkable progress. For instance, scientists have implanted iPSCs into one patient with Parkinson’s. So far, there haven’t been signs of immune rejection and scientists reported that certain Parkinson’s symptoms had improved — but there was no control group for this study, so these findings are extremely premature. 

Meanwhile, at the National Eye Institute, a team of scientists led by Kapil Bharti have been manufacturing induced pluripotent stem cells from patient blood samples, and have shown, in animal studies, that these cells can integrate with the retina. That suggests they may be able to restore certain types of vision loss that currently have no treatment

But, there’s still a problem that seems to dominate the regenerative cell research landscape: where do you actually get the cells? 

Cellino is looking to massively scale-up the way that iPSCs are made. Manufacturing a few cells by hand for animal or even early-stage human studies is one thing. But as larger Phase III trials near, researchers will need methods to make many of these cells in a reliable way. 

Cellino’s key invention is a laser-based cell-editing system that can help eliminate cells that aren’t up to the task of regenerating tissues, or deliver biological cargo needed to advance manufacturing. Meanwhile, the company is developing machine learning algorithms with the ability to pick out subpar cells. 

All together, Cellino is looking to create a closed-loop system that can manufacture IPSCs, and eliminate the unusable — all without human intervention. The dream is to build a truly autonomous human cell foundry by 2025. 

“You’re really running into a manufacturing bottleneck,” Saklayen tells TechCrunch. “So as we were engaging with investors — a lot of them were passionate about the iPSC space and have invested in other companies working in the space — what drew them to Cellino was our ability to automate these complex processes.” 

Since Disrupt, Cellino has been working on a collaboration with Bharti’s project at the National Eye Institute. It represents the first clinical trial intended to transplant personalized iPSCs into patient retinas, with the hopes of treating age-related macular degeneration. 

Cellino will be manufacturing the iPSCs for this upcoming trial, and Bharti’s group will test those IPSCs to ensure they meet FDA safety requirements. In the long term, Cellino is aiming toward developing a iPSC-derived retinal pigment epithelium product. (Bharti is also a part of Cellino’s scientific advisory board, says Saklayen). As of now Cellino is “in the process of getting this collaboration formalized,” she says. 

As for the Series A, Saklayen articulates clear goals when it comes to hiring. She’ll plan to expand the machine learning capacity of the platform — a key part of making Cellino’s platform truly autonomous. On the science side, the company will measure its progress by creating a robust data set comparing its stem cells to those derived from existing, but slower techniques. 

“We will be doing head-on-comparisons of ourselves with the [cell] lines that are already going into clinical trials,” said Saklayen. “So it’s really a comparability data set that we’re going for to show that the cells coming off of a single platform are safe and high quality.” 

Cellino founder and CEO Nabiha Saklayen joined our Found podcast recently; be sure to check it out to learn more about her and the company.