Prolific Machines Lights Up Bio-Manufacturing With $55M Boost

In a significant stride towards revolutionizing biomanufacturing, Prolific Machines, a California-based startup, has secured $55 million in a Series B1 funding round. The round was led by the Ki Tua Fund, the corporate venture arm of New Zealand’s dairy co-op, Fonterra Co-operative Group. This initial close takes Prolific Machines’ total funding to an impressive $86.5 million, with contributions from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Mayfield, SOSV, Shorewind Capital, Darco Capital, Conti Ventures, In-Q-Tel (IQT), and several other investors.

Founded in 2020 by a trio of experts—stem cell biologist Dr. Deniz Kent (CEO), physicist and biomedical scientist Dr. Max Huisman (CTO), and computer scientist and machine learning engineer Declan Jones (CIO)—Prolific Machines is pioneering the use of light-sensitive proteins to control cells for biomanufacturing. This innovative approach, known as optogenetics, offers a transformative alternative to traditional methods that rely on costly growth factors and molecules.

“We’ve been using molecules—whether chemicals or proteins—to control cells for decades, and they come with a bunch of problems,” says Dr. Deniz Kent. “In some cases, the issue is cost, with some growth factors used in therapeutic proteins, stem cell cultivation, tissue engineering, vaccine production, and gene therapy coming with hefty price tags.” Beyond cost, Kent points out issues related to the uncontrollable nature of these molecules, risks of contamination, and reproducibility problems due to the biological variability of these substances.

Optogenetics, however, promises to address these challenges by utilizing light—a cheap, inherently sterile, and reproducible input. “Every one of those problems is solved with light,” Kent emphasizes. “It’s easy to control both spatially and temporally, allowing for higher yields and the creation of patented products that other methods can’t replicate.”

The startup’s technology involves introducing light-sensitive proteins to cells, which can then be activated or deactivated using specific wavelengths of light. This precise control over cellular functions enables more efficient biomanufacturing processes. “We take light-sensitive proteins and genetically attach them to different targets inside the cell,” Kent explains. “You can toggle the activity of that target using light.”

This method not only reduces costs associated with downstream processing and purification but also offers regulatory advantages. “We’ve spoken to the FDA, and they were very happy about the fact that we have a solution to eliminate the need for these other inputs,” Kent notes.

Prolific Machines is currently focused on mammalian cells, which are used in the production of antibodies, cytokines, vaccines, viral vectors for gene therapy, and tissue engineering. However, Kent sees potential for the technology to be applied to microbial cells used in precision fermentation as well. “There’s a lot more investor appetite to do mammalian applications because you can make a lot more money,” he says.

The company’s advancements have not gone unnoticed. “Breakthrough innovations like Prolific Machine’s biomanufacturing platform don’t come along often—particularly innovations that have the potential to unlock profound impact in both human and environmental health, across multiple industries,” says Komal Mistry-Mehta, fund director at Ki Tua Fund.

Prolific Machines holds 14 patent families, with 11 owned by the company and three by universities (Stanford, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins). As the first to deploy optogenetics in biomanufacturing, Prolific Machines is setting a new standard in the industry, promising a future where light, rather than costly molecules, drives cellular control.

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