Andreessen Horowitz Backs Asimov’s Synthetic Biology CAD Software

Xconomy Boston — 

Synthetic biology continues to capture the attention of technology investors.

Last week, it was Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks announcing a $275 million Series D funding round backed by the likes of Y Combinator and Bill Gates’s private investment vehicle, Cascade Investment.

This week, it’s Asimov, another Boston-area synthetic bio startup, raising money. The amount—$4.7 million in seed funding—is much smaller than Ginkgo’s latest round, of course. But the investors are also noteworthy: Andreessen Horowitz, the well-known Bay Area venture capital firm, led the round; Data Collective, Pillar Companies, and AME Cloud Ventures also invested, according to a press release.

They’re all betting that synthetic biology—a field that includes methods of modifying the genes of living organisms to change what the organisms do—will play an increasingly important role in manufacturing various products, and that software will enable that shift.

In Ginkgo’s case, the company uses software and robotics systems to design and test custom-made yeast and other microorganisms engineered to secrete products such as rose-scented oil that goes into perfumes; sweeteners for beverages; and industrial enzymes used in laundry detergent.

Other synthetic bio companies include Bolt Threads, which is engineering yeast that produces spider silk-like fibers for fabric and garments; Impossible Foods; which genetically engineers yeast to make a crucial ingredient in its meatless burger; and cell therapy firm Cell Design Labs, which was acquired this month by Gilead Sciences for up to $567 million.

Meanwhile, Cambridge, MA-based Asimov said it has developed a system that uses computer-aided design software, machine learning, and other tools to help it engineer “genetic circuits” used to “program” cell behavior. The technology could have applications in sectors like healthcare, manufacturing, and consumer goods, the company said in the press release.

“In the same way that electronic circuits and microprocessors have pervaded every aspect of our lives (from mobile phones to smart toasters to electric toothbrushes), the same will quickly become true for engineered genetic circuits,” Asimov co-founder and CEO Alec Nielsen said in an e-mail to Xconomy. “Asimov is developing a platform to design the equivalent of genetic ‘microprocessors’ for living cells—this allows us to program biology in new and interesting ways.”

The genetic circuits developed by Asimov consist of a custom DNA sequence that gets inserted into a cell’s genome to give it a new function, Nielsen said. Each circuit includes several genes that handle tasks like sensing the environment, regulating other genes, and interacting with a host cell’s genome, Nielsen said.

Customers lay out the parameters of how they would like Asimov to program the gene expression, including the timing, magnitude, and other conditions. For example, a biotech company might hire Asimov to develop cell circuitry that could be used in a “living therapeutic” that, in theory, could sense the person has a certain disease, triggering a “therapeutic response,” Nielsen said. Another application might be creating crops imbued with “stress-response circuits that allow the plant to activate genes to withstand extreme cold, drought, etc.,” he said.

Asimov doesn’t develop and manufacture the end products, like a drug or a plant seed. Rather, it develops the cellular blueprint that helps direct customers’ products. The DNA sequences it designs can be delivered in virtual form, as physical DNA in a tube, or already incorporated into living cells, Nielsen said.

Asimov uses software to diagram cellular circuitry and help simulate its performance. It employs machine learning tools to try to predict the best design, Nielsen said.

“Just as semiconductor companies today depend on electronic design automation to build their chips, computer-aided design is playing an increasingly important role in bioengineering,” Andreessen Horowitz general partner Vijay Pande said in a prepared statement. “We’ve reached an inflection point in terms of what can be reliably built. This has profound implications.”

Asimov said its technology is based on government-funded research at MIT and Boston University. Nielsen’s co-founders include MIT professor Christopher Voigt, Boston University professor Douglas Densmore, and MIT biological engineering PhD Raja Srinivas. (Nielsen also has a PhD in biological engineering from MIT.)

The company currently has six employees, with plans to grow to 14 people in the near future, Nielsen said.

Three of Asimov’s four co-founders. L to R: Christopher Voigt, Alec Nielsen, Raja Srinivas. Photo courtesy of Asimov.

[Top photo by Flickr user Caroline Davis2010, used via a Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.]