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4 friends from Cambridge built a desktop printer that lets scientists print their own proteins 

nuclera

Recent world events have seen the biotech industry receive a level of attention not witnessed since the release of the first Jurassic Park movie. Nuclera is a biotech company that are developing state-of-the-art protein printers that are revolutionising the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. They have taken full advantage of this re-kindled global interest, and quite rightly so. 

Their benchtop protein printers are revolutionising medical and cutting-edge bioresearch. Recently they also managed to secure $42.5M in a Series B funding round. Backers included M&G, Amadeus Capital Partners, E Ink, RT Partners, Future Planet Capital, British Business Bank Future Fund, and G. K. Goh.

The ability to rapidly develop and produce new drugs and treatments will be essential to deal with future pandemics and avoid unnecessarily high fatality rates. We were lucky with the Covid-19 pandemic as the mRNA vaccine technology was already in development which meant scientists could rapidly re-tool the process to target the virus. 

But researching new drugs and treatments needs protein synthesis which currently takes weeks or months to grow in the required quantities and strains. This process is also highly skilled and requires years of training and experience to get right. The Cambridge, UK- and Boston, Massachusetts-based startup is working hard to eliminate these issues which are significantly slowing down vital research. 

Their benchtop eProtein printers are revolutionising medical and cutting-edge bioresearch by cutting down protein printing times to as little as 24 hrs. This is a drastic improvement on current methods and automates much of the process, making vital research materials more readily available. 

Michael Chen, Co-founder and CEO of Nuclera explains why this is such a big step forward, “There’s a fundamental productivity problem in biotech today. A biotech scientist needs to know how to make proteins to design drugs. That’s like expecting a computer scientist to know how to build a computer to design software Our eProtein desktop bioprinter makes it easy for scientists to access the proteins they need in a single day rather than the weeks, months, or even years it currently takes. The new financing and partners we are announcing today is a strong vote of confidence in our mission to increase the accessibility of the drug discovery and general bio-innovation process.”

Michael Chen co-founded Nuclera in 2013 with three friends during their first year studying for their PhDs at Cambridge University. They were frustrated with the difficulties involved with obtaining proteins for their research and so decided to do something about it. 

In 2018, Nuclera raised $11.2m in their series A funding round led by RT Partners. Then in May 2021 they acquired the digital microfluidic operations at E Ink, Boston, Massachusetts with a UK future fund investment led by E Ink. The joining allowed them to develop their eDrop digital microfluidic technology that powers the printers. The company has now grown to over seventy employees split between two HQs in Boston and Cambridge. 

Andrea Traversone, Managing Partner at Amadeus Capital Partners, describes what is attracting so much investor interest, “Nuclera’s eProtein platform unites the very fragmented workflow that currently exists in proteomics. Nuclera is bringing rapid prototyping—a concept that did not exist until now—to biotech, and by speeding up research and opening up completely new avenues of innovation, it will have a far-reaching impact in numerous markets. We have been very impressed with the quality of the team that Michael and his co-founders have assembled and the unique technology they are developing.”

Michael Chen, Co-founder and CEO of Nuclera was kind enough to take part in this Q&A session with TFN. Recently we also interviewed Alchemy Machines CEO Dia Thanki where she told her story on how a car crash led her to build an AI-based transcription startup.

What was your professional background before founding Nuclera?

We were and are scientists. Nuclera was founded by students (Gordon, Jiahao, Radu, and I) in the first year of our PhDs. We were all studying various aspects of how biology worked. We were all united, however, in our frustration at how long it took to get access to the building blocks necessary for our bio-projects. Our goal at Nuclera is thus to make biology accessible by making proteins (the building blocks of biology) accessible. 

What is Nuclera? How does the technology work? And who will use it the most?

Nuclera is a company founded to promote accessibility. Drug discovery is inaccessible because proteins are inaccessible. We make proteins accessible through our eProtein™ desktop bioprinter. Our customer is any scientist or leader out there who has ever thought “there’s bound to be a better way for my colleagues and me to get the protein we need for our experiment.”

The technology works by combining eDrop™ digital microfluidics, which uses digital signals to move thousands of tiny droplets, with our cell-free protein synthesis “inks” to make a bioprinter capable of screening, characterizing, and printing proteins on-demand in a single day. 

Who are your competitors? And how are you different from them?

Our competitor is the status quo ‘do-it-yourself’ process in the marketplace today. Scientists in total spend nearly $7B on protein expression or protein expression services every year. They do this by getting DNA, preparing that DNA, putting that DNA into cells, growing those cells, telling those cells to make protein, breaking open those cells to get protein, separating the cellular debris from the protein, and characterizing that protein. Most of the time, scientists need to perform this process tens of times to just find the right conditions to make their protein! As you can see…it’s a long and laborious process that requires decades of training to get right. 

We combine all the above into a single, easy-to-use cartridge that automates the entire process from DNA input and protein screening to protein characterization and purification. It takes the weeks and months-long protein discovery process and shrinks it down to a single day.

What was the process of receiving £42.5M funding from key investors?

I treat investors like customers. As an entrepreneur, you’re selling the equity in your company for the money, reputation and value that an investor is going to bring into your company. The key is to work with your team to market to potential investors how your company will deliver venture returns:

• What is the differentiated product offering? 

• How does your product address the unmet need of a niche (but high impact) marketplace and rapidly evolve into an offering that meets the unmet need of a wider marketplace?

• How do you develop a moat around your product offering so that smaller VC-backed companies and larger revenue-generating companies are unable to rapidly copycat your technology?

• How have you de-risked product and product-market fit risks, and why is your team the right team to tackle this challenge?

Just like a sales funnel, it is important to keep the funnel as full as possible. We approached 100+ investors before finding our lead. Even after making the marketing slides above, you need to use your network and your connections to get introductions to as many investors as possible. We found our investors by cultivating and talking to as many of them as possible over many months and years. 

What are your goals and mission for Nuclera in 2022 and beyond?

Our mission is to make proteins, the building blocks of drug discovery, accessible in a single day. To achieve that mission, we will be introducing our eProtein desktop bioprinter into the marketplace throughout 2022 and 2023. In the coming years, we want to build on top of our initial offering to achieve our mission of making drug discovery and ultimately biology accessible. 

There are many megatrends that are causing the demand for bespoke protein expression to increase exponentially. 

Next-generation sequencing (NGS) sequencing productivity increases with Moore’s Law. The productivity of downstream writing tools must catch up to keep pace. The widely available amount of code has created a huge amount of genomic code. Scientists need to create new tools and algorithms in order to make sense of this code. Much of that code encodes for proteins. Protein writing has simply not caught up.

AlphaFold and In Silico Protein Modelling have made exponential increases inability to predict 3D protein structure. The demand to conduct experiments with bespoke proteins is increasing exponentially, but writing tools haven’t caught up. Knowing the 3D structure of a protein helps scientists develop drugs to treat disease. In silico technologies are making it easier to predict 3D structures. But these hypotheses can only be tested through wet lab protein experiments. The scientist lacks a tool to rapidly test hypotheses about protein on a single platform. 

COVID-19. Sequence to authorization for mRNA vaccines showed that drug discovery can take <1 year. How do we replicate this timeline for all other drug discovery pipelines? We believe a protein printing platform is key.

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