Published March 8, 2022
Biotech companies such as Strata Oncology, TMRW Life Sciences, and DNA Script are breaking new ground in cancer detection, IVF storage, DNA synthesis, and more.
By: Adam Bluestein
The most innovative companies in biotech this year expand R&D capabilities for researchers in the lab and online, enable more precise and inclusive diagnostic tests, and offer new paradigms for everything from drug development to the maintenance of healthy soils for agriculture. Emulate, for example, added to its arsenal of organs-on-a-chip with in vitro models of the colon and the brain, permitting new ways of studying intestinal inflammation and testing drug candidates that can pierce the blood-brain barrier. DNA Script employs a new process called enzymatic DNA synthesis (EDS) in its benchtop DNA printers, allowing scientists to create longer strands of DNA than traditional DNA synthesis on demand. TMRW Life Sciences is modernizing the IVF clinic with an automated, robotic platform for safe storage and efficient retrieval of frozen eggs and embryos. Notable advances in diagnosing cancer and guiding treatments come from Strata Oncology, which launched a new assay for solid tumors that requires significantly smaller tissue samples for genomic profiling, and Myriad, which updated its genetic test for breast cancer risk to include risk assessments for more diverse populations. LightDeck and SafeTraces developed new ways of quickly detecting COVID-19 and other pathogens in patient samples or circulating through large buildings. Bringing a portfolio model to its diverse drug-development program, BridgeBio Pharma attained two FDA approvals for new drugs last year, making it the smallest drugmaker to earn more than one nod from the agency. Benchling’s launch of a cloud R&D platform for life sciences helped accelerate research in mRNA underlying new COVID-19 treatments. And Biome Makers applied genomic sequencing to soil, analyzing the microbiomes of farmland to help farmers measure the impact of fertilizers, biological inputs, and other management practices on crop health, helping ensure the long-term health of farmland while reducing the use of chemical fertilizers.
1. TMRW Life Sciences
For minding the eggs
IVF clinics around the world are actively managing and storing tens of millions of frozen human fertility cells, aka eggs, and by 2025, that number is projected to hit 22 million. Many clinics still handle specimens by hand and track patient data using paper logs. TMRW Life Sciences is the first automated platform for the storage, management, and care of frozen eggs and embryos used in IVF. Its integrated software and hardware ensure that eggs and embryos are traceable using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and safely maintained at cryogenic temperatures. Robotics and automation allow clinicians to retrieve eggs and embryos while maintaining the optimal temperature for all specimens during the retrieval process. TMRW launched in 2021 with leading IVF clinics in Boston, Denver, Chicago, and San Diego, safely transitioning more than 30,500 existing eggs and embryos into its platform.
2. Strata Oncology
For tumor sequencing from tiny samples
In 2021, Strata commercially launched its StrataNGS 429-gene assay that profiles solid tumors to match cancer patients with the most effective therapies. The StrataNGS is unique in its ability to profile tumors from a minute tissue specimen: It requires 10 times less tissue than conventional tumor genome-profiling tests, and can thereby deliver treatment selection results to 50% or more patients. Pfizer Ventures and Merck Global Health Innovation Fund joined in $90 million Series C financing in July.
3. DNA Script
For bringing DNA printing to the benchtop
Paris-based DNA Script is in the leading wave of companies developing a faster, more accurate and efficient alternative to traditional chemical synthesis of DNA, called Enzymatic DNA Synthesis, or EDS. Significantly for research purposes, EDS permits the creation of longer strands of DNA than other methods. With its Syntax System benchtop printer, commercially launched in June 2021, scientists can now print their own DNA on demand in their own labs. DNA Script is part of a consortium of companies selected by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) to develop a DNA-based system for data storage, and it is also partnering with Moderna and GE Research to develop on-demand vaccines for biothreats.
For bringing the brain to organs-on-a-chip
In March 2021, Emulate released its Colon Intestine-Chip for researchers investigating inflammatory intestinal diseases. In June 2021, it launched the Emulate Brain-Chip, a realistic model of cell types in the brain, which can be used to investigate mechanisms of neuroinflammation and evaluate the efficacy of drug candidates in piercing the blood-brain barrier. It and other so-called organ-chips combine different types of living cells in a special microfluidics chip that re-creates the natural physiology and mechanical forces that cells experience inside the human body. Such chips could replace animal testing in many cases, and Emulate has been an advocate for animal rights, urging legislation to reduce the use of primates for drug testing and supporting the FDA Modernization Act and the Humane Research Act, which call for alternatives to animal testing.
5. LightDeck Diagnostics
For ramping up rapid diagnostics
Using a laser and microfluidics platform, LightDeck‘s cartridge-based testing system allows sample testing and results almost anywhere, in minutes, with lab-quality accuracy. In 2021, the company received $35.1 million from the Department of Defense and Health and Human Services to ramp up production of its COVID-19 antigen and antibody tests from 50,000 tests per month to 1 million tests per month by September 2022. In May 2021, LightDeck partnered with Hach, a global leader in water systems, to deploy 10-minute water-quality tests for rapid, lab-quality, and accessible water testing.
For providing a virtual lab for collaborative life sciences R&D
Benchling launched its life sciences R&D cloud platform in 2013, but 2021 was the. year it took off, becoming a hotbed for scientists to collaboratively design, analyze, and develop complex RNA therapeutics in a unified environment. Benchling is the first third-party cloud solution built purposefully with life sciences in mind, and it is clearly filling a need: Benchling’s platform has more than 700 customers—including biopharma companies Editas, Regeneron, Gilead, and Pfizer—plus 200,000 researchers at more than 7,000 leading academic and research institutions. One in four biotech startups that went public in 2020 and 2021 were built on Benchling.
7. Myriad Genetics
For making a more inclusive test for breast cancer risk
In 2021, Myriad, which developed the first test for the BRCA gene mutations that can increase breast cancer risk, launched the first polygenic breast cancer risk assessment score validated for women of diverse populations and all ancestries, addressing long-standing disparities in detection and outcomes for non-white patients. To help ensure broad access, Myriad says that between insurance coverage and Myriad’s financial assistance program, nine out of 10 women who qualify for the test pay $0.
8. Biome Makers
For using DNA testing to grow healthier soils
Sacramento, California-based agtech company Biome Makers uses DNA sequencing, bioinformatics, and intelligent computing to analyze the soil microbiome of farmland, and pulls from its database of 27,000 soil microbiome samples from 60+ different crops to deliver data-driven insights about what soil really needs to be healthy for any crop and soil type. Offering a more complex picture of soil health than traditional chemistry tests, Biome Makers lets farmers and manufacturers of agricultural products measure the impact on the soil microbiome of fertilizers and biological inputs, or of specific management practices. The company, which raised a $15 million Series B in August, claims 900 unique customers globally and has partnerships with Bayer Crop Science, Dole, Marion Ag, and Eurofins.
For making sure the air is safe to breathe
This Bay Area startup, founded in 2013, pivoted from its main business of “DNA barcoding” food and pharmaceutical products to make them traceable through the supply chain to selling a DNA-based test for airborne diseases. The system uses patented “DNA-tagged aerosol tracers” to detect, measure, and visualize abnormalities in airflow, ventilation, and filtration in real-world indoor spaces, safely simulating respiratory emission and occupational exposure to infectious aerosols such as COVID-19. Recent clients include the California Department of Corrections, the Port Authority of NY/NJ, schools, long-term care facilities, and commercial landlord Brookfield Properties. SafeTraces experienced 200% quarter on quarter revenue growth in 2021.
10. BridgeBio Pharma
For shaking up the drug development business model
Using an innovative “portfolio model” for drug development, BridgeBio Pharma operates more like a VC firm: A central management group with sales and regulatory expertise oversees a diverse portfolio of programs pursuing various diseases and drug platforms, a new model in biotech. In 2021, the company got its first two FDA approvals, for therapies that target bile duct cancer and a rare, life-threatening condition called Molybdenum Cofactor Deficiency (MoCD) Type A. Among the 36 new drug approvals the FDA has issued this year, BridgeBio is one of only four companies to have more than one approval; the others are well-established pharmaceutical giants Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, and Janssen Pharmaceutical, making BridgeBio the smallest company to achieve this accomplishment. Some 20 additional drug trials are ongoing.
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Fast Company magazine.