Pre-clinical, Venture

Replacing lab rats? Bay Area tech fund backs Emulate’s $36M round to commercialize ‘organ chip’ tech

After inking a slew of big pharma partnerships earlier this year, Emulate is stacking away $36 million in new capital to commercialize a drug-testing tech it hopes will one day replace the lab rat.

Aaron VanDevender

The round was led by a Bay Area tech investor group — Founders Fund — whose partners founded and funded companies like PayPal, Facebook, and SpaceX. While Emulate may not grow to those great heights, the company’s tech is pretty interesting to the drug dev crowd.

The whole idea behind the company, a Wyss Institute spinoff, is to improve how drugmakers decide if a medicine will work in a certain patient group. Testing drugs in animals and dishes isn’t as predictive as it could be, Emulate’s president and CSO Geraldine Hamilton told me a few months ago. Animals and dishes are flawed environments. Animals are not humans, and they often fail to predict how drugs will perform in patients. And cells in dishes don’t work like they do in the human body, so they aren’t very predictive either. Hamilton says existing drug-testing tools are missing “key factors,” including mechanical forces, dynamic flow systems, and circulating immune cells.

Enter, Emulate’s technology.

The company makes tiny chips that hold living cells in chambers. The chips are engineered to mimic the environment natural cells might experience in the human body — for example, the tech uses mechanical forces that mimics breathing. Emulate calls its tech the “human emulation system,” or “organ chips” for short. And the company has already signed on several big pharma partners, including deals with Roche, Takeda, and AstraZeneca this year.

Emulate’s “organ chip”

For now, these partnerships are focused on the goal of personalized drug safety, using the chips to test how a patient or patient group might respond to a drug. But one day, Hamilton tells us, she’d like to see the technology replace animal toxicology studies in preclinical drug research.

Aaron VanDevender, the chief scientist and a principal at Founders Fund, says Emulate’s tech might be able to address what he calls a “crisis” of inaccurate drug response predictions.

The dependence of drug development on animal models for safety and efficacy testing has hit a wall. As therapeutic approaches become ever more precise and complex, the limitations of legacy animal models increasingly prevent accurate predictions of drug responses in humans. This crisis has simultaneously put patients at risk of unpredictable side effects while inhibiting the approval of novel life-saving therapies. Emulate’s platform uses human cells to recapitulate human physiology, enabling the development of safer, more efficacious drugs. We believe its adoption by drug developers is a scientific, commercial, and moral imperative.

The new funds will help the company build out its commercial side. Proceeds will also expand the functionality of Emulate’s organ-chips, instruments, and software.


Image: Geraldine Hamilton. Emulate


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