The accelerator is helping scientists turn their moonshot visions into viable businesses, fast.
Biology is becoming the new digital. As the engineering of biology starts delivering solutions at industrial scale while becoming more data-driven and automated, investors are growing more excited to fund the breakthrough biotechnologies that unlock this potential for a whole range of different industries. From the inside perspective of the world’s largest early-stage life sciences accelerator and most active VC fund in the field, I’m lucky to see some interesting new trends that will shape the world around us in the coming years.
Europe has been steadily rising as a global hub for innovation and is attracting big bets from veteran VC investors. It has even been hailed as the “New Silicon Valley.” Boasting an active DIY biology scene, world-class institutions and productive innovation ecosystems, the continent is a fertile base to grow global startups from the early stage to the next level.
Accelerators are indispensable elements to harness this early-stage innovation, which often remains locked up in institutions or falls into the “Valley of Death”, the often deadly funding gap between those first discoveries and a working prototype.
This is the stage the RebelBio accelerator comes in to help startups solve global grand challenges—with life itself.
An Innovation Engine
It’s as exciting in biology today as it was in the computer industry in the 70ies, when the Apple II came out. Computers became personal.
As Steve Jobs said, “I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology,” the ethos of RebelBio is to bend and break the rules of the status quo at the intersection between these two disciplines.
A total of 15 multidisciplinary teams from across the world have begun the latest program at RebelBio, garnering an investment of over $100,000 for each company. In addition to gaining access to fully equipped labs and office spaces, they also draw from a network of hundreds of mentors, including RebelBio-founder Bill Liao, who also cofounded Xing, Davnet, and CoderDojo.
The program helps the founders to make their longer-term moonshot visions (the “innovation” part) into feasible projects which generate revenue early on (the “engine” part). It is transforming scientists into entrepreneurs across diverse areas of life sciences and is currently in its fourth batch.
“From novel biomaterials to new ways to brew the foods we love, from speeding up cancer lab tests turning days into hours, to a microbe-miner discovering life-saving antibiotics. We even have a machine learning startup for drug discovery, and another working on microbial fuel cell modules to treat wastewater while generating electricity!”
– Bill Liao, founder of RebelBio and general partner at SOSV
So what kind of startups are brewing at RebelBio?
Figure 1: The lab and some of the cohort IV at University College Cork (Image: RebelBio)
Growing the Circular Economy: From High-Tech Ecosystems to Cellular Agriculture
Urbanization is a global trend that will drastically change how we live. By 2050, up to 66% of the world’s population will live in cities, according to the United Nations. That means we need better solutions to power, feed and clean up our future megacities.
Therefore, developing a productive circular economy is imperative to make human activity more sustainable and improve the health of our planet. Biomimicry can help us unlock nature’s most resource-efficient blueprints to future-proof humanity.
Hence, building smarter, zero-carbon cities with biology has already started. For example, NuLeaf Tech is combining engineered mini-ecosystems with microbial plant fuel cells as part of a biologically inspired and self-powered hardware module that treats wastewater to provide clean water. And ultimately, grow food. These were the ideas that a young founder, Rachel Major, brought to the NASA Ames Advanced Studies Lab in 2015 and eventually gave rise to her startup.
The team is testing a first prototype in collaboration with local farmers, with the vision to create high-tech ecosystems and artificial, modular wetlands—even in vertical arrangement for use in the home.
“ Our bio-inspired technology will create purified water and clean energy solutions for industry and residential use.”
-Rachel Major, cofounder and CEO of NuLeaf Tech
So, bio-inspired design helps us uncover powerful engineering solutions – and even novel materials. Examples include the ability to 3D-print degradable bioplastics and make useful items from the plastic waste, in which our planet is drowning.
Figure 2: Left, NuLeaf Tech; right, microbial fuel cell prototype (Images: NuLeaf Tech)
The Foods of the Future? They’re Brewed, Too!
We’re entering the post-animal economy. Cellular agriculture is a scientific field which uses cell cultures to make proteins and organic molecules typically derived from animals. This way, yeast produces synthetic spider silk for neckties and eco-fashion (by none other than Stella McCartney), mushroom grows leather for beautiful purses and you can even grow your own…mushroom lamp!
You’ve probably heard of the clean meat startup MemphisMeats of our sister program IndieBio SF, which makes lab-grown meat from stem cells. It recently secured a $17 million investment from Bill Gates and Richard Branson, among others. Other examples include allergy-free peanuts or genome-edited plants to feed 8 billion people.
Cultured meat and plant-based products will transform the way we eat. While they’re finding (and funding) their way onto our dinner plates, what about cellular beverages?
Afineur is cofounded by CEO Dr. Camille Delebecque. Their coffee, produced by microbial fermentation, is taking New York’s coffee culture by storm. Even if you usually drink your Cultured Coffee black, rest assured lab-grown milk goes exceptionally well with it. Perfect Day (formerly Muufri) uses yeast to produce milk proteins as lactose-free, vegan alternative. Synthetic dairy has arrived.
And what better alternative to sweeten your caffeine fix, but with MilisBio’s sweeteners? They’re made of proteins. As these plug-and-play plant-based proteins are up to 700 times sweeter than sugar, the team is addressing the demand for non–carbohydrate-based artificial sweeteners in a world hooked on sugar.
What’s that, you’re not a coffee person? You might want to try algae then! Spira is infusing the health market with a tasty, nutritious drink produced by Spirulina algae.
Figure 3: Afineur Cultured Coffee (Image: Afineur); Spira Spirulina-based drink (Image: Spira); and Perfect Day cow-free milk (Image: Perfect Day).
As we see, exciting things are happening at the intersection of biology and technology. These startups are at the forefront of tackling diverse areas of life sciences. Hopefully, we will see more of these astonishing consumer biotech products, as well as novel medicines.
Stay tuned for part 2! Meanwhile, we’ll keep working hard behind the scenes to accelerate startups and ground-breaking scientific innovation – how else to build a better world than with the building blocks of life?
Find us at Future Food-Tech in London this 18-19 October to learn more about the future of food. Come visit the panel discussion “Transforming Challenges into Opportunities through Investment in Food-Tech”.
This full article first appeared on O’Reilly and was updated here in the section on cellular agriculture.
Article Image: An artist’s conception of what agriculture might look like in the future for the book “the future world of agriculture” by Wendy B. Murphy in 1984.