Bay Area Biotech Startups Leading the Fight Against COVID-19

These San Francisco startups have emerged as stars in the fight against COVID this year due to their focus on biotech.

Written by Ghazala Irshad
Published on Dec. 16, 2020
Bay Area Biotech Startups Leading the Fight Against COVID-19

We are living in one of history’s most transformative periods in the fields of science, medicine and technology. The speed of research and development for diagnostics, treatments and vaccines has been unprecedented, enabled by the mobilization of the healthcare and biotech sectors.

With a vaccine on the horizon at the end of a tumultuous year in public health, Built In San Francisco reviewed some of the local biotech startups that contributed in some way — whether it was through gene editing, antibodies, digital health or understanding the disease at a cellular level.

 

czi
Noah Berger/UCSF

Founded by billionaire Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative funds tech-driven, collaborative efforts toward a number of social causes, including science. This year, CZI has invested millions in its partners and programs to help tackle COVID-19.

CZI is throwing much of its weight into the biotech front, supporting multiple projects to study how the disease progresses in single cells and tissues, as well as funding the comprehensive COVID-19 Cell Atlas. But this research is only part of the work CZI is enabling through its funding of the Human Cell Atlas, a global collaborative effort to map every type of cell in the healthy human body as a resource for studies of health and disease.

 

CZI’s support of the Human Cell Atlas has already enabled valuable insights into COVID-19.”

“Single-cell technologies provide a powerful platform for researchers to understand the cellular basis of any disease — including COVID-19,” CZI Head of Science Cori Bargmann said in a May announcement. “CZI’s support of the Human Cell Atlas has already enabled valuable insights into COVID-19 — including identifying cells in the nose that may be entry points for the virus.”

 

synthego
Synthego

COVID-19 is known as a “novel” coronavirus because it’s a new strain. That means it required substantial research and development at the outset of the pandemic — and we needed it fast. Enter Synthego, a genome engineering company founded by former SpaceX engineers in 2012. The CRISPR-based platform leverages machine learning and automation to accelerate R&D of cheaper gene therapies through proprietary hardware, software, bioinformatics, chemistries and molecular biology. This year, Synthego worked with research institutions and the CDC to focus on COVID-19 vaccines and clinical trials.

In August, the company announced it had raised $100 million in Series D financing — bringing its total private funding past $250 million — which it will use to expand the capabilities of its platforms. In a press release, Dr. Nevan Krogan, Director at the Quantitative Biosciences Institute at UCSF, hailed Synthego’s platforms after using them for drug repurposing research.  

 

During this pandemic... having access to Synthego’s genome engineering platforms has been invaluable.”

“During this pandemic, when speed and accuracy are more critical than ever, having access to Synthego’s genome engineering platforms has been invaluable for the investigation of the role of human proteins that interact with SARS-CoV-2,” Krogan said.

 

brightinsight
BrightInsight

Outside of COVID-19’s direct impacts on personal health, the public health crisis is also affecting the ability of biopharma and medtech industries to launch products or run clinical trials. BrightInsight’s digital health platform helps users turn findings from clinical trials into commercialized, regulated, digital products, including devices and software that may have implications long after the pandemic ends.

 

If you have more than one device or other data sources, you want to bring in an infrastructure to support them for the long term.”

“Building a digital infrastructure is much more of a long-term bet because you don’t throw it out and start over. You know that’s going to collect and manage all of your data,” CEO and Co-founder Kal Patel said in an interview with MedCityNews. “If you have more than one device or other data sources, you want to bring in an infrastructure to support them for the long term that can support biopharma and medtech companies as they seek to turn data into insight.” 

In June, BrightInsight announced a Series B fundraise of $40 million, which the company plans to invest in expanding its global footprint.

 

twist bioscience
Twist Bioscience

Twist Bioscience is another biotech startup with a proprietary platform that’s proving essential to the fight against COVID-19 by manufacturing custom DNA. In the synthetic biology market, Twist’s custom DNA was a hot commodity before the pandemic even hit — the company’s stock price had tripled since its IPO in 2018. By early December, its shares were up 520 percent

This year’s skyrocketing demand is largely due to antibody production in research labs, which can be useful in both treatment and diagnostics. But antibodies require custom DNA blueprints and there’s often a lot of trial and error, necessitating many gene variations.

 

Twist can make hundreds of thousands of different genes quickly.”

Chief Scientific Officer Aaron Sato said that’s exactly what Twist is offering. “Twist can make hundreds of thousands of different genes quickly. Basically, this allows us to make a lot of antibody clones as part of a workflow. And Twist can make unprecedented synthetic gene libraries, which are a fantastic tool for antibody discovery,” Sato recently told Forbes

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