Launched by MIT grads, a small startup gets $20M to back a robotics revolution in cell therapy manufacturing
As co-director of an experimental cellular therapy process development and manufacturing group at UCSF specializing in T cell therapies for autoimmune conditions, Jonathan Esensten has learned a lot about the challenges involved when his group hand-fashions a cell therapy. Esensten — who was a postdoc in Wendell Lim’s lab and counts the legendary Jeffrey Bluestone as a mentor — gives them all high marks at being great at what they do, but time and again there are variations in the treatments they construct.
And that’s a problem.
Esensten can’t offer any data, and these are highly trained individuals we’re talking about, but “my intuition is that small differences in technique can make a difference in the outcome of a cell therapy manufacturing run,” he says.
As anyone in biopharma can tell you, variations in therapeutic output are not OK. You want to set a standard and hit it every time.
So when Fred Parietti came in a couple of years ago to take a first-hand look at what they were doing at UCSF and see for himself what cell therapy manufacturing was all about, they got to talking.
It wasn’t just that there were variations in the product, Esensten says. It’s expensive to get a trained group together. Harder to prevent them from being raided by the growing multitude of biotechs in the area, who find it easy to beat a university salary.
For Parietti, who joined a band of MIT grads and journeyed to the Bay Area to launch a robotics upstart called Multiply Labs, it was an eye-opening experience, and one that led to a unique alliance. Now Parietti’s startup is funding work in Esensten’s group to develop a robotic system to do that work — an approach that he feels has near-term commercial potential.
And after raising $5 million in seed cash to get them going, he’s won over some key converts. The team at Multiply can now boast of a $20 million followup round to get the product through testing and into the hands of an industry he feels is ripe for this kind of precision manufacturing tech as cell therapies boom.
Casdin Capital led the round, with new investors Lux Capital and Pathfinder, Founders Fund’s early stage investment vehicle, also participating along with seed investors Fifty Years and Garage Capital.
Multiply got started manufacturing a robotics system that can make custom designed pills, often using specific combos — a growing feature in the manufacturing world. Once they get their new system set up for cell therapies, Parietti also believes that there are a number of players in the cell therapy field that can see the advantage of using robots in place of people, working 24/7, without any variations in technique. With no penchant for making mistakes. And no new salary demands.
“Essentially the cell therapy processes are all lab processes adapted for GMP, but they were never created to scale … ,” he says. “People make mistakes. That’s the definition of people.”
“The people are the biggest danger for the drug,” Parietti adds. “In cell therapy you want to protect the drug from the people, not the people from the drug … Our job is to make stuff efficient and automated.”
It’s also a question of efficiency, which revolves around what Parietti calls parallelism. With automated systems, you can continuously use multiple bioreactors in parallel. With people, or the alternative systems on the market that Esensten points to, bioreactors have to be segregated in individual spaces to avoid cross contamination.
That’s a big job, but Multiply is still small, with 10 people plus another 5 consultants. That should grow significantly with the current venture round.
The inspiration for the team started at MIT, where Parietti, who was working on exoskeletons in the robotics group, met up with Alice Melocchi, who was devoted to healthcare systems. Together, they built a team that targeted manual drug manufacturing, getting a foothold with their capsule tech. Now they feel equipped to go after a much more ambitious target in cell therapies.