Synthetic biology involves adapting the genes of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi to create ‘cell factories’ that use programmable proteins to produce a wide variety of everyday products: from milk and meat, grown without farming animals, to plastics created without petrochemicals, materials for clothing or electronic components, or even personalized medicines. Synthetic biology can also be important in breaking down and recycling waste materials. Building these proteins is, however, a costly and laborious iterative process based on trial and error. It often takes years to reach a viable solution and often, more than 99% of protein designs tested in the laboratory fail to hit their design specifications. Synthetic biology is currently at a commercial and scientific turning point, with Cradle primed to shape this emerging field, valued at $1,157bn - with the cell factory market alone worth $40bn.
Cradle has developed a platform that allows scientists to ‘reverse engineer’ proteins with the desired specific properties and has built a working platform already being used by several early-stage design partners. For example, a biologist might want to change a protein so that it is guaranteed to remain stable at a certain temperature or so that it will attach itself to a specific chemical in its vicinity. Cradle’s self-teaching, self-improving generative machine learning models – which draw on recent advances in ‘natural language processing – can predict which parts of a protein’s genetic code a biologist will need to alter, significantly improving a scientist’s chances of getting the experimental results they want.
The startup further improves the performance of these large models on specific tasks relevant to the context of biological research and makes them accessible to scientists without a machine learning background through an intuitive and collaborative online platform. Through this method, Cradle believes it can reduce the time and cost of getting a synthetic biology product to market by order of magnitude. Companies in the pharma and chemical industry are testing the validated product as the company prepares for the launch in 2023.
Fresh funds boost development
Leading angel investors also participated in the round, including Feike Sijbesma, Honorary Chairman and former CEO of Royal DSM; and Emily Leproust, founder of Twist Bioscience. The company will use its seed funding to continue to accelerate product development and build out its offering as the global leader in programmable biology, scale its team and support the onboarding of more design partners.
Currently, Cradle employs 12 people with six employees based in the Netherlands at its wet-lab and six in Zurich. The team comprise machine learning and biotech research specialists with experience at the world’s leading technology and biotech companies, including Google, Google X, Zymergen, Uber and Perfect Day. The company’s CEO Stef Van Grieken and CTO Daniel Danciu also live in Switzerland.