Food for a Growing Planet: How Biomachines Will Win

November 17, 2021
7 min read
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When our portfolio company Future Fields set out to address the world’s reliance on animal protein as a food source, they intended to produce lab-grown chicken. After four months of intense experimentation, their only product was a chicken nugget that cost $3,000 a pound--not a viable solution to world hunger. 

A lot of companies might have given up at that point, but Future Fields forged on. At that time, the biggest barrier to creating economical lab-grown meat was the lack of an affordable growth medium–the serum applied to cells to help them grow. Learning how to produce this medium in a cost-effective way, they realized, could not only reduce their costs, it could also help other lab-based meat makers. The result was a pivot to a new business model of creating and selling growth factor to the very companies they previously competed with. 

At Bee Partners, we believe “machines will win.” But what does this actually mean when applied to biological machines? The path is long and only a few leaders will have the grit and determination to creatively overcome the challenges on the road to commercialization. Alongside our biomachines portfolio, we’re excited to be working with other industry forgers that have similar markings for success, and who are tackling head on big issues such as food supply and climate change, amidst a rapidly evolving marketplace.

The History of Biological Machines
The concept of cultivating living beings for food production began circa 10,000 B.C, when sheep were first cultivated through herd management. More recently, during the 1980s, DNA sequencing allowed for the engineering of biological components and, not long after, NASA began researching in-vitro meat to feed its astronauts in space. Not far from Bee Partner’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, UC Berkeley researchers were the first to identify, file a patent for, and publish the key components of the CRISPR-Cas9 system needed to edit DNA in 2011.

Many of the early synthetic biology solutions focused on green tech for energy. However, the core technology fueling many of these companies predated advancements in user-first software and data analytics and therefore required too much time and money to be viable or scalable.

Innovations in DNA synthesis, lab automation, machine learning, and machine vision allowed for a decrease in cost and increases in speed, leading to greater computational power and insights. 

Today, as a result, scientists’ ability to sequence and engineer DNA – the foundation for all biological machines (for which there are 400 billion permutations for humans alone) – can now skyrocket. 

The result? Instead of using a known material that fits “well enough,” biologists design organisms to meet minutely specific needs and create optimal solutions. 

Filling the Biological Machine Gap
Not surprisingly, there are significant challenges to scaling biomachine enterprises. 

Growth media, the nutrient “broth” that scientists put on the cells to cultivate them, is prohibitively expensive. It’s also hard to source, since it relies on fetal bovine serum (FBS). FBS is created from cow fetuses, which are largely inaccessible. In addition, the harvesting of FBS (rightly) raises concerns about animal cruelty, and is problematic for vegetarians and vegans. 

Bioreactors, the 100,000 liter tanks in which cells grow, also present a challenge. Getting to production scale with these tanks requires a massive investment, plus deep interdisciplinary expertise that is often not institutionalized, so the work predominantly depends upon shared knowledge. 

Shannon Hall, co-founder and COO of our portfolio company, points out, “It is incredibly expensive to build out a fermentation lab, even at small scale. But to prove the concept or manufacture the first grams of material you need to actually build out business partnerships so you have access to infrastructure, which is hard without funding. Historically, it’s been a conundrum.” 

Pow solves this problem for young companies that aren’t yet ready or able to make the investment. “We have a complete fermentation lab that scales and can take you from a flask you can hold in your hand to 1000L liters of fermentation capacity, which covers the entire ‘pilot’ stage of scale-up,” says Shannon.

The infrastructure Pow provides has helped propel another of our portfolio companies: New Culture. When Bee Partners was first introduced to New Culture, it cost $100,000 to produce a kilogram of cheese. Now, thanks in part to its partnership with Pow, New Culture is well on its way to matching retail cheese prices, and has raised $25M in Series A funding to commercialize its animal-free mozzarella cheese. 

New Culture recognized early on that it would have to scale. “The science and engineering process that we have right now is going to look very different as we grow,” says Matt Gibson, New Culture’s co-founder and CEO. “You're not just going from one liter to 1,000 liters to 100,000 liters of tank volume – you have to redesign and re-optimize a large part of your bio-process at each step.” 

As part of its scaling strategy, New Culture ultimately has decided to build its own pilot-scale bioreactor facility ahead of a planned commercial facility buildout. This strategy will help solve the build-borrow bioreactor conundrum as will partnering with large industrial fermentation players.  

Another challenge young biomachines companies can face is in understanding continuous fermentation, which is often referred to as the holy grail of biology. 

Continuous fermentation means starting fermentation and maintaining it at maximum productivity for as long as possible. It’s the key to getting high-performing fermentation to work. “But,” says Shannon, “it hasn't really been unlocked for microbial or industrial-synthetic biology.”

Pow embraced the potential of continuous fermentation from the beginning. “We saw it as a clear opportunity to make higher productivity at smaller scale,” says Shannon. “We then realized it had even more potential as a process-development tool where we could get faster process development cycles and more insights.”

Pow took that science and married it with artificial intelligence. “We believe putting these two together in a product would enable us to deliver this tool to everybody to use,” Shannon says. “The 25,000 fermenters out there could tap into something that would turn what was once a ‘secret art’ into something more predictable and measurable.”

The Business of Biological Machines
Biological machines, at every scale, will soon touch every industry vertical. In fact, 60% of the physical inputs in the global economy could be produced biologically, and 45% of the diseases we face on earth could be addressed. Bio-engineered products represent a whopping $4T market in the coming decade.

We are in the midst of a bio revolution, and the majority of its impact extends beyond human health, touching domains like  agriculture, food, materials, consumer products, pharma, and energy. Fanning the flame, 30% of the private sector’s R&D spend is now dedicated to biological machines - even Big Tech is actively exploring. As one example, Microsoft is researching how DNA might be used for data storage.

Meanwhile, the unicorns and decacorns are galloping forward. Ginkgo Bioworks went public in May 2021 at a $15B valuation. Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Zymergen are each valued at over $1B. Leading indicators like the massive raises (e.g., $100 million-plus Series Bs), and sky-high valuations all point to the great potential for this industry. 

Indicators also point to a world made better by science and innovation, a world that inspires optimism for the future. That vision of the future is one we’ve always believed in at Bee Partners and it’s an important part of the reason that we’ve added these biomachines companies to our portfolio and will look to add more in the future. As we do so, we’re more confident than ever that machines will help us all adapt and evolve as we face a rapidly changing future. 

Interested in a career in Biomachines? Our portfolio companies are hiring!

About Bee Partners
Founded in 2009, Bee Partners is a pre-Seed venture capital firm that partners with revolutionary Founders working at the forefront of human-machine convergence across technologies that include robotics, AI, voice, i4.0, and synthetic biology. The firm leverages a singular approach to detecting new and emerging patterns of business as well as inside access to fertile but often overlooked entrepreneurial ecosystems to identify early opportunity in large, untapped markets. Bee’s portfolio companies consistently realize growth at levels that outstrip industry averages and secure follow-on capital from the world's top VCs.

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