Khosla joins bet on unconventional startup looking to send drug delivering robots into the brain
When Michael Shpigelmacher started the project, he knew he’d have to fund it himself. Every other effort of its kind was academic, rejected as too risky by investors.
Shpigelmacher, a robotics geek and entrepreneur who had drifted into consulting for pharma, wanted to build the real-life equivalent of technology from the 1960s film “Fantastic Voyage,” the one where a submarine crew is shrunk to “about the size of a microbe” and sent on a mission to repair a scientist’s brain. He scanned the literature, found the lab that was working on the most advanced project — at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, it turned out — and started funding them with money from his and his co-founders’ own accounts, along with some seed cash from friends and family.
Five years later, Shpigelmacher has a company, Bionaut Labs, and even a few investors willing to take a shot on what they produced: a millimeter-sized, screw-shaped, cell-penetrating robot, designed to drop biological bombs on command to precise spots in the body. That includes Khosla Ventures, the prominent Silicon Valley tech VC, who is leading a $20 million Series A round for the biotech, helping push them and their remote-controlled therapeutic toward the clinic for brain disorders, ideally by 2023.
“As far as I know, there is no other company that does remote-controlled micro-robotics in the industry,” Shpigelmacher told Endpoints News. “We got it to the point where VCs were able to step in.”
The new effort has passing similarities to the “robotic pills” at development at Rani Therapeutics and other startups, but those, like any pill, can only go to the gut, Shpigelmacher said. Bionaut will try to remote guide their drug to organs throughout the body, developing a series of robots with different shapes and features for different tasks and tissues.
The goal for Bionaut is broadening the so-called therapeutic window for drug development. For most drugs, developers have to balance a molecule’s ability to, say, kill a tumor with the potential harm it can do to all the other cells exposed to it, creating a narrow window for viable drugs. That window expands if you can deposit the drug directly into the part of the body where the disease is based.
The biotech chose to focus first on neurology because it’s an area where companies have repeatedly failed, and where the failure often traces back to how well they can deliver to the brain, or specific parts of the brain. Their first program is for a rare and fatal childhood tumor that appears on the brain stem.
Essentially, the company will load chemotherapy onto the mini-robots, inject them into the central nervous system and use a magnetic wire to guide it to the tumor, where it drops the payload.
“We don’t want to start from concepts that sound too risky or untested,” he said. “We know that if we get this thing to the target, it’s going to work.”
Eventually, though, the company also wants to deliver various other technologies, including gene therapies, oncolytic viruses and antisense oligonucleotides. Ideally, they could more precisely target drugs already being developed for neurological diseases. For example, a Parkinson’s drug might be more effective if it were delivered directly into the substantia nigra, a region at the center of the brain where much of the degeneration plays out.
Shpigelmacher said the company raised their Series A in mid-2019 and waited until they had sufficient proof-of-concept data to be confident they were on track for the clinic. Still, it remains early stage and the company’s investors come entirely from the tech world, with a couple, such as Khosla, that have been recently inching into biotech.
“We are thrilled to bring Bionaut Labs out of stealth mode as it typifies the type of new impactful technology companies we like to help build,” said Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, which has been increasingly inching into biotech over the past few years. “Bionauts hold great promise as a new targeted treatment modality for severe brain disorders for which there are few, if any, effective treatment options. Moreover, the broad therapeutic potential of Bionaut extends to many diseases where conventional therapies are limited or lacking.”