Inscripta, a global leader in genome engineering, is reshaping the image of a synthetic biology company.
Biomanufacturing is set to transform many industries by making the products that the world needs in a cleaner, more efficient, and sustainable way. But there is not a single playbook on how to realize that vision. As the synthetic biology industry continues to assess different strategies for success and longevity, Inscripta is shifting its vision from being a technology provider to developing and commercializing bio-based products using a lean and efficient approach to biomanufacturing.
Sri Kosaraju, Inscripta’s president and CEO, who is going to speak at the SynBioBeta 2023 conference happening this May, shared his thoughts on the prospects of synthetic biology and biomanufacturing:
“There is a growing confidence in the market potential and the market opportunity across many different sectors,” said Kosaraju. And Inscripta is ready to tap into that market potential. Last week, the company announced the acquisition of Sestina Bio and Infinome Biosciences in a bold move that solidifies the change in direction. Having completely restructured its business, the company is ready for a new chapter.
From selling picks and shovels to mining gold
Inscripta is one of the pioneers in developing tools for engineering microbes to produce chemicals, enzymes, materials, and other bio-based products. Their technology is based on CRISPR genome editing, a pivotal discovery that was awarded the chemistry Nobel prize in 2020. The company has built a CRISPR-based platform for high-throughput editing of microbes that can be used for countless synthetic biology applications, from making sustainable ingredients to developing new antibiotics. Its potential impact is transformative: the same way next-generation sequencing (NGS) revolutionized reading DNA, Inscripta’s technology is changing writing DNA.
But Inscripta is letting go of the picks-and-shovels business model and focusing instead on mining the gold – moving down the value chain to focus on making innovative bio-based products. To do that, they are bringing together the best technology and expertise to accelerate biomanufacturing innovation. Having already developed the technology, the company is now amassing talent with the acquisition of Sestina Bio and Infinome Biosciences and figuring out how to engineer biology in the fastest and most efficient way to capitalize on the biomanufacturing gold rush.
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Inscripta has been on the scene since 2017. The Colorado startup went through a rapid expansion as it was building out its genome engineering platform and raised nearly half a billion dollars in total funding by the end of 2021. But the growth proved unsustainable and Inscripta ended up downsizing significantly in the last quarter of 2022. With this move, they are challenging the industry’s popular brute-force approach to creating bio-based products and instead envisioning more of a “lean company” model.
Turning a synthetic biology idea into a product has two important parts. The upstream task is re-writing the DNA code to program microbes to make a specific product. The downstream scale-up and process optimization stages involve optimizing that DNA code to enable making the product at commercial scale. Inscripta’s recent acquisitions bring in those complementary areas of experience and expertise together. With the two former customers now part of the company, Inscripta has assembled a dream team of synthetic biology’s brightest talent.
Infinome was a spinout from Inscripta, founded by one of the thought leaders in the field, Richard Fox, and one of Inscripta’s founders, Andrew Garst. Infinome’s co-founders were some of the first to recognize the power of Inscripta’s technology. They wanted to see what they could accomplish with powerful genome engineering tools and a small team of experts that understood both the fundamental principles and challenges of engineering biology:
“Manipulating genomes until recently has been very slow, laborious, and expensive,” says Fox, who is now the Senior VP of Synthetic Biology Products at Inscripta. “We can do it much faster than ever before.”
With increasing competition in developing and commercializing bio-based products, being able to engineer organisms faster provides a big competitive advantage. Infinome is bringing that expertise along with a “lean” philosophy on what a synthetic biology company model should be. Their Lean Bioengineering™ approach to making biomanufacturing scalable and cost-effective combines the best of existing technologies, including Directed Evolution, CRISPR, and Machine Learning.
Sestina Bio had the same philosophy, with the goal of creating industrially optimized strains at a fraction of the time and cost. The Bay Area startup was founded in 2020 and demonstrated the effectiveness of their approach right out of the gate, despite the challenges of operating during the pandemic. The company shared its first success in October of last year, announcing the development of a scale-up-ready strain producing the important cosmetic ingredient, bakuchiol, in less than 12 months with the help of Inscripta’s core technology. For any synthetic biology company, regardless of size, this is an unprecedented development timeline, and Sestina at the time was operating with a team of close to a dozen people.
Sestina’s expertise in developing strains that can withstand the rigors of commercial manufacturing conditions relies on incorporating high-dimensional data and predictive modeling into their strain development process, which can save months during the scale-up phase. This is a great example of how the combination of wet lab technology and computational power can bring the dream of synthetic biology future to life, where everything is made with biology from the clothes we wear to cosmetic products we put on our skin. Bakuchiol is one of those nature’s hero ingredients that has incredible skin benefits, similar to those of retinol, but without the side effects like irritation and UV sensitivity. But bakuchiol is currently extracted from a threatened plant, presenting a barrier to its adoption as a widely used cosmetic ingredient. Making the same molecule in yeast instead of extracting it from a plant, could solve this problem.
A new synthetic biology company model
The bakuchiol success is a great example of what can be done with the efficient approach to genome engineering that Inscripta has pioneered combined with a team of great experts. Sestina and Infinome provide that complementary set of expertise necessary to turn ideas into commercialization-ready products: “Our approaches mesh really well together. There's no redundancy or overlapping areas in my mind,” says Andrew Horwitz, former VP of R&D at Sestina Bio and now at Inscripta.
And there are a lot more sectors that are ripe for innovation: “There are a lot of companies that have already committed to sustainability and to certain initiatives, but they're having a really tough time figuring out to do this,” Kosaraju points out. “And I think that is the opportunity for us to engage with those folks.”
“When [synthetic biology] companies are asking for millions of dollars and years of development, this is a non-starter for a lot of companies who are trying to get into this space,” seconds Fox. “We make it much easier to get into synbio and capitalize on the opportunities.”
What makes it possible is the combination of the lean-company approach and the best technology in the field. Most companies of that size focus on developing one product, and the success of that product is existential. But Inscripta is able to create a full product portfolio, comparable to that of a large biofoundry that has billions of dollars invested into infrastructure, with much fewer resources:
“Most synbio companies operate with teams of dozens of people or more. We have teams of three to five people. Instead of months of development time, we can do weeks. Instead of making five or 10 or 100 changes, we can make 10,000,” says Fox. It is truly something that the industry has not seen before.
Thank you to Katia Tarasava for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about, including Inscripta, are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest.