“I love technology,” says Dr. Thomas Meany, Cell-Free Technology CEO, emphatically, as he begins to elaborate on the story of how Cell-Free Technology came to be. This innovative academic has had quite the journey, leading to the knowledge that Cell-Free Technology could be a serious business. The first lesson probably came when he decided to drop out of university during his second year to live in the Canadian wilderness. Unfortunately, his adventure did not work out well because he fell from a tree, broke his arm, and could not make any money. So, he begged his dean to allow him back into the university.
We are all thankful that Tom was pushed back into academia because, here, he completed his PhD in physics, joined the University of Cambridge as a computer scientist in collaboration with Toshiba, and became an interdisciplinary fellow in the Plant Science Department. After spending time in the labs, he was tired of wasting time filling out paperwork for experiments, so he decided to build the technology that would allow this to be a thing of the past; Cell-Free Technology.
Tom communicated his vision to RebelBio founder, Bill Liao, and biochemist, Ian McDermott, during the RebelBio Futures conference in late 2016. Bill Liao is the founder of RebelBio, a leading biotechnology startup accelerator. Ian McDermott is a biochemist working to crack open cells in order to extract the biomolecular machinery. After their initial pitch at this conference, both Tom and Ian quit their university roles and joined the RebelBio Accelerator to bring the idea of Cell-Free Technology to the world.
The company is based on the science that tells us that DNA is the code and the cell is the computer. Cell-Free takes cells apart and extracts the billion-year-old processors that turn DNA into protein, enzymes, and molecules. The most important aspect of this is the fact that this technology is free from any biological hazard regulations. This allows Cell-Free to create an extract that empowers the user to produce literally anything, including vital biomolecules like insulin, odours and smells, bio-compatible color palettes, or glow in the dark proteins.
Like any startup, Cell-Free Technology has experienced many trials and tribulations. Their most exciting moment came after many failed concept trials. However, late one evening, after working through many ideas, CSO Ian tried a slightly different approach. The next morning, they found the results they had been hoping for; their extract had produced the green fluorescent protein they were trying to create. More importantly, they made it at ten times lower than market cost, and all of the production numbers added up.
Today, biology is like computing in the late 1980s; waiting for innovation. People need to be able to access biology at an affordable price, in their own homes, and without infrastructure. “Our product is the personal bio-computer,” Tom explains. “We build simple biologic platforms that can be used to make, create, and build with life. We market directly to those who don’t have access to the infrastructure of large research centres. Our product is the only marketed tool to be completely exempt from all constraints surrounding biological regulation.”
As RebelBio comes to a close on Wednesday, July 26 at Demo Day in London, the Cell-Free Tech team is planning to stay in Cork, basing their lab in the Environmental Research Institute (ERI). Here, they will manufacture and distribute their product and continue their R&D, which is essential to keep their technology at the cutting edge. They are hiring!