London-based software platform Synthace is on a mission not just to digitize the lab, but to revolutionize the way biology is done with one simple idea: a universal language.
Consider the automotive industry and its suite of tools that take an initial idea through to simulation, build and testing. After Autodesk was formed in 1982, it wasn’t long until car designers were creating CAD (computer-aided design) files, testing and manipulating the designs digitally with 3D simulation and engineering in CAE environments (computer-aided engineering), automating their physical build with robotics and CAM (computer-aided manufacturing), and managing the whole process of people, engineering, data and assets with PLM software (product lifecycle management). Files are standardized across the board, they work on various platforms, multiple teams can collaborate internationally, and insights from one design, test and build process can be integrated into another. In short, the automotive industry has an integrated suite of tools that allows for digitization, which has been around since the 1980s.
In biology, there’s not been the same push for an integrated digital platform to design, manage, automate and analyze the ever more complex process of life science. In fact, biology is well-known for its reliance on repetitive manual tasks which require scientists to be physically pipetting or cell-culturing in the fume hood; for its lack of reproducible results when experiments are conducted and recorded in such a non-standardised manner; and for its ‘brute force’ trial-and-error approach to drug discovery.
And the costs of the inefficient, error-prone process that is drug discovery are not only high but increasing. Where Moore’s Law illustrates the cheapening and ‘easy access’ of digitization in many technology fields, the pharmaceutical industry has the cleverly named ‘Eroom’s Law’ (‘Moore’ spelled backward), described by Jack Scannell and team in 2012, that shows that the number of new drugs approved by the FDA per billion US dollars (inflation-adjusted) spent on R&D has halved roughly every 9 years.
Simply: it’s getting more expensive to create drugs.
Enter Synthace, the startup developing Antha, a language and software platform specifically for biology. In 2018, the company raised a £26 million series B round led by Horizons Ventures, to continue to develop their cloud software platform. With clients and partners such as Microsoft, Merck, Oxford Biomedica, LabGenius and Princeton, the company is fast becoming the pioneer in so-called ‘Computer-Aided Biology’.
“We don’t make equipment, we make a software platform that makes equipment more usable,” said CEO Tim Fell. Indeed, Antha allows scientists to codify their experimental protocols and workflows, meaning they can unambiguously compile those instructions on any make of equipment software. “When someone sends you a PDF and you send it to print, you never consider which make of printer you have. That is the level of interoperability we are bringing to the lab.”
That might sound like an obvious idea to anyone who doesn’t work in life sciences; that scientists would be able to send and receive instructions, results, and data to and from equipment in order to do their work. But with methods sometimes comprising of messy statements such as ‘shake it a bit’ or ‘room temperature’, as well as equipment from many companies and many eras running many different programs, the idea of creating a universal ‘CAD file of biology’ has, until now, felt more like a pipe dream. Translating experiments, methods, instructions, and data into one language understandable by computers across the board simply has been a challenge seen as too big to tackle.
Instead, to try and tackle the problem of increasing costs with increasing complexity in life sciences, there have been many efforts to digitize parts of the scientific process. “The market size for Electronic Lab Notebooks is $ 400 million per annum. For Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) its $ 0.75-1.2 billion. We spend substantial amounts on digitally capturing what we used to write down and recording where our lab reagents and consumables are, but next to nothing on digital tools to help us actually execute the experiments we want to do,” as Fell puts it.
There are emerging drug discovery and synthetic biology startups building digitally native processes from the ground up, such as Recursion Pharmaceuticals, Gingko Bioworks and Zymergen which are raking in investments and growing at pace. Indeed, in the last week alone, Recursion announced their $ 121 million round, Gingko announced their $ 80 million investment in synthetic biology company Synlogic, and Zymergen bought an additional 57,000 square feet of space in Emeryville. With 85% of the $ 170 billion spent on life science R&D dedicated to pharmaceuticals, it makes sense that companies working on revolutionizing the underlying processes are attracting the attention of investors worldwide.
These companies are taking a ‘closed-loop’ approach to biology, however. This, of course, is the competitive advantage of the companies themselves, but they don’t necessarily represent the best solution if the goal is to get more science out of the lab in the form of more, better drugs, agricultural products and all manner of bio-based materials yet to be discovered.
In 2018, Synthace penned a white paper mapping their vision and the surrounding industry of ‘Computer-Aided Biology’. With their focus on the physical equipment and experiment execution and design side, they are well aware of how they slot into a wider collection of solutions that allows for a full physical-digital biological platform.
The ‘universal language’ that Synthace’s platform Antha provides sets the company apart in terms of industry vision. Since 2005, over $ 2 billion has been invested into the Computer-Aided Biology ecosystem, but over 75% of that investment has been into companies focusing on a more ‘closed-loop’ business model that doesn’t allow for interoperability across the whole ‘biology stack’.
Indeed, this is one of the key problems in the digital science space: there are many new companies tackling many specific problems across the experimental lifecycle, but few can plug into one another. This causes on-boarding, acceptance and time-management problems for scientists keen to digitize their workflow, in that they have to learn to use each new solution and keep track of many platforms, languages, and processes in piecing together an end-to-end approach. Or, in the case of Zymergen, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, and Gingko Bioworks, the modern approaches are kept in-house.
Synthace then has a unique opportunity in that creating an underlying technology and language which can link together the many existing and emerging platforms focused on specific parts of that chain, and create a new industry-wide approach to doing biology across the board. And by selling the vision, as opposed to the platform itself, not only do they gain the support of ‘democratized science’ advocates, but also investors and clients who can see the potential of this underlying system possibly taking the industry by storm.
For now, Synthace is focused on the pharmaceutical industry, with its appetite for cost- and time-saving technologies, its huge biological complexity (especially with the growth in interest in cell- and gene-therapies) and its relative openness to new platforms that help tackle the problem of Eroom’s Law. But the bigger mission of changing how biology is done is where platforms like Synthace know the opportunity lies: thinking in computational language, interoperable processes, and inherently reproducible experiments. Their universal language in Antha seems like it could be the foundation for this fundamental shift.
As Fell puts it: “It’s a massive endeavor, we’ll be at this ten years, to transform this industry like it really needs to be. But we can’t boil the ocean all at once.”