Backed by Bayer's Leaps, Boston-based Cellino lands $80M for cell therapy-in-box
The summer before Cellino CEO and co-founder Nabiha Saklayen started at Harvard, she lost her grandmother following complications to diabetes. Before then, she hadn’t taken a biology class since ninth or tenth grade — the mark of a classic physicist — but it was then she decided she wanted the rest to sit at the intersection of the two for the rest of her career
Combine that with being across the way from the University’s stem cell institute in Cambridge, and you get the birth of Cellino, an autonomous cell therapy manufacturing company that just announced the closing of its Series A.
“I think of my grandmother very fondly,” Saklayen said in a call with Endpoints News. “That’s definitely been a strong underlying motivation.”
Cellino landed $80 million in a Series A led by Leaps by Bayer, the big pharma’s investment arm, 8VC and the Humboldt Fund. Felicis Ventures and existing investors The Engine and Khosla Ventures also contributed. So far, the company has raised $96 million to date.
The company wants to make stem cell-based regenerative medicines available on a wider scale for eligible patients. Its manufacturing platform tries to combine artificial intelligence and laser technology to cut back on expenses and overcome the limitations that arise when trying to scale.
Through image-based machine learning, it trains algorithms to look at images and find info in a consistent manner, something that Saklayen says machines can do better than humans. From there, the company uses the data to figure out what is good, and what is not in the manufacturing process.
Leaps has a portfolio of 50 companies and is focused on potentially breakthrough technologies that have specific targets. Jürgen Eckhardt, the head of Leaps, said in an interview with Endpoints that Cellino was an obvious investment for this reason.
“Cell therapy today is a pretty labor-intensive process, pretty expensive, and will not be available for the broad masses as of today, but we want to sort of democratize that process of manufacturing,” Eckhardt said. “Their vision is to be a cell manufacturing foundry, where you can produce targeted cells at a fraction of the cost.”
Cellino is eventually working toward “GMP-in-a-box” — a closed system that can be dropped off at hospitals that need them to manufacture therapies.
For now, that is an aspirational idea, not yet complete. Saklayen says that the team is somewhere in the middle of the development, though there is plenty more to be learned before trials.
It’s a concept that several other companies — like Fabian Gerlinghaus-led Cellares and Germany’s CureVac — have been working toward as well. But it’s become even more personal for Saklayen. Not only did she lose her grandmother before starting at Harvard, but two years ago, her great aunt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s hard to see that there’s no medical treatments available to her,” she said. “All of the treatments are dealing with symptoms, not the disease.”
With that money, the company is going to boost its software, machine learning and hardware capabilities for the end-to-end manufacturing of stem cell therapies, both autologous and allogenic.
So it will look to boost its software and machine learning teams with the next hiring wave. In the age of work-from-home flexibility and fluid in-office requirements, it could be difficult to recruit workers to the team, especially in a region as competitive as greater Boston. But because of the work it’s doing, Saklayen says that the company is committed to the region.
It’s located in the heart of Cambridge, MA, on Massachusetts Avenue, across the street from a legendary concert venue called The Middle East that held concerts for anyone from Gary Numan to Vanilla Ice, and above a restaurant founded by 8-time James Beard award-winning chef Ken Oringer.
“As a company, Boston and Cambridge is our heartbeat,” Saklayen said.