Prolific Machines raises $55m in Series B1 funding to shine light on optogenetics’ potential in biotech

By Ryan Daily

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Prolific Machines
Source: Prolific Machines

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Biomanufacturing technology provider Prolific Machines raised $55 million in Series B1 funding, which will go to support the commercialization of its light-based biotech platform, company Co-founder and CEO Deniz Kent told FoodNavigator-USA.

This Series B funding was led by the venture arm of Fonterra Co-operative Group through its Ki Tua Fund with participation from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Conti Ventures, Darco Capital, In-Q-Tel, Mayfield, Shorewind Capital, SOSV and others. Prolific Machines has raised a total of $86.5 million in funding, including convertible notes, since the company emerged from stealth in 2022​.  

“The main use of funds is to commercialize the technology. For the last four years, we have just been proving that this actually works. Initially, when we started doing this, people did not even believe that you could control cells with light. ... The next step is actually getting this into the hands of people,” Kent said.

Is optogenetics the key to addressing biotech scalability, cost issues?

Founded in 2020, Prolific Machines offers a range of biomanufacturing software and hardware built on the principles of optogenetics — a biological technique of controlling cell activity with light — which biotech companies can add into their manufacturing processes through a series of hardware upgrades, Kent explained.

Prolific Machines offers its software a-la-carte to biotech companies, allowing them to pick the specific software designed to fit their needs, Kent explained. The company offers software designed to control the receptors on the surface of the cell, optimize the metabolism of a cell, turn one type of cell into another and more. 

Biologists and biotech companies are exploring optogenetics — a field of study with roots in neuroscience — to change mammalian cells and improve the process of creating high-value food and beverage ingredients like lactoferrin, cell-cultivated proteins and antibodies.

Creating a method to interact with one part of a cell

Biotech processes require various molecular inputs ─ including chemicals and proteins, which have “real problems associated with them,” he said. For instance, these molecular inputs can be costly, be hard to control cells and can come with reproducibility issues, he added. 

Biotech companies can change the biology of cells through various levers — from manipulating the temperature of the bioreactor to changing the media to grow the new cells — but these changes have “a number of effects on the entire system,” Kent said.

Prolific Machines’ technology tags a specific part of a cell with a light-sensitive protein, allowing companies to target parts of a cell at the sub-atomic level without making changes to all the conditions in a bioreactor, he said.

“If you want to build a smart bioreactor ... then you need a couple of things. You need a way for machines to interact, and you need the cells to be in a format that machines can interact with,” Kent said.

He added, “What we do is give machines a way to precisely interact with one thing without impacting all of the things, and the way that we do that is by attaching these light-sensitive proteins to various different targets inside the cell. And then we can toggle the activity of those targets using different colors of light, even though the cells that we are using are not naturally light-sensitive. And so, the light only impacts the things that you have tagged, and it allows for machines to directly control a receptor on the surface of cells or ... an enzyme inside of cells.”

‘This is the power of light ─ you have dynamic control’ over biology  

Biotech companies can run various optogenetics experiments using Prolific Machines’ technology to understand how to create a biological change, Kent explained. This data is then fed into Prolific Machines’ AI engine, improving the experimentation process over time and providing insight on the best conditions to create specific results, he elaborated.

Through this process, biotech companies can learn how to change the biology of cells more efficiently, saving them money in the manufacturing process, he claimed. 

“The idea is basically to have machines start experimenting with different light patterns to try and figure out what is the best light pattern for your desired application, and that could also change over time. The best light pattern at the start of your run may not be the best light pattern in the middle of your run, and it may not be the [best] light pattern towards the end of the run because the cells are changing. The environment is changing. And so, this is the power of light ─ you have dynamic control. You do not have to have the same [light] pattern the entire time,” he said.

Prolific Machines goes to market with ‘bespoke deals’

While Prolific Machines does not create biotech-derived products itself, the company operates a facility in Emeryville, Calif. , — in the original Jelly Belly factory — that will be expanded to allow for biotech companies to pilot projects, Kent said.

Prolific Machines expects to make its first customer announcement by the end of the year, though Kent did not disclose further details. 

Initially, Prolific Machines will work directly with customers to deploy the technology in biomanufacturing facilities, ensuring that the technology is properly installed, Kent said.

“Over time, it will become more cookie cutter, and you will be able to just order everything on our website ... but that will not be how it starts. How it will start is bespoke deals that we work on with the customer to make sure that they are delighted by what they get,” he added.  

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