Inscripta pushes funding to $260 million as they launch genome editing platform
Inscripta presentations can begin with the advent of agriculture. Or even further back: The emergence of man.
“We’ve come a long way, starting with natural selection,” Inscripta microbial director Nandini Krishnamurthy told a session this year at SynBioBeta, the new annual conference for the synthetic biology field.
Behind her was a slide that’s recurred in company presentations, showing from left to right across the bottom the classic evolution-of-man chart (the ‘humorous’ kind that ends on an overweight soda-drinker), a picture showing the development of corn from thin strand to bulbous Iowan, and then a squiggly protein close-up of “directed evolution.” Below that runs an arrow and a ticker of how long each takes, from 10^9 years to 1.
“The question is how do you go from precisely engineering proteins to precisely engineering pathways and genomes to harness the power of biology?” she said.
It’s the kind of grand rhetoric and ambition you’ve come to expect from a synthetic bio field that features Gingko Bioworks and a company billing itself as the “Nespresso machine for DNA synthesis.” Inscripta keynoted the 2019 conference to launch their Onyx platform for genome engineering, and today they’ve announced $125 million in Series D funding to commercialize that platform. It brings their total funding to $260 million. The pitch is simple: Do for CRISPR what laptops and phones have done for supercomputers.
“We’ve democratized access to the foundry,” CEO Kevin Ness told Endpoints News, referring to the microtiter plates often used for DNA-edited cell lines. “We’ve created the equivalent of a desktop computer.”
The foundries are groups like Gingko and Zymergen that often use their large facilities to edit organisms for a service fee. Inscripta is trying to put much of that system in the hands of researchers, a key cog they think will help unleash emergent “bioeconomy:” a world where genomes are edited as much as they are read. The price, though, is not insignificant: Around $350,000 total.
Inscripta first made a name when they unveiled MAD7, an alternative CRISPR enzyme to CAS9 and then gave it away for free to all researchers. They pitched it as an altruistic ways of breaking the licensing fees around CAS9 and helping move the entire field forward, but it was good business: In eliminating one bar to genome editing, they widened the potential market for their real product: Onyx. It was a similar strategy to the one employed Illumina – the genome reading company Inscripta specifically markets themselves around.
“We do for genome editing what Illumina did for genome reading,” Ness said.
Ness has experience on the genome-reading side, working early in his career on PCR and later co-founding 10x Genomics, and Inscripta employs multiple Illumina alumni, including their co-founder and first CEO: John Stuelpnagel.
So how does it work?
A biologist with the platform can select the genes they want to knock out from Inscripta’s computer interface. Inscripta then creates the agents to knock out those genes at their manufacturing facility and sends them to the biologist’s lab. The biologist applies those agents to the cell lines, creating thousands of different lines that are “bar-coded.” The biologist can run whatever experiment — exposing them to a drug, say, or an agent — and the Inscripta tech can see which cell lines survived.
So far the platform is only available for E. Coli and S. cerevisiae and the company’s exposure outside synthetic biology and bacteria spaces has been limited, but Inscripta has found a big proponent in MIT’s Jim Collins. Collins has used the platform to create bacteria cell lines with 5,000 different gene edits. He then used those to test which genes conferred resistance.
It allowed us “to explore the genetic dependencies of antibiotic function in unprecedented detail.” Collins told GEN in October.