Rise of the Lean Biotech Start-up

Biotech start-ups are a bulky affair. They require monstrous amounts of money and resources to start with, take years to do the research and development for the product and the profits, if any, fall down rapidly once patents expire and  generic versions of the product fill the market. For platform start-ups, the technology often gets outdated before it becomes profitable. Thus, biotech start-ups make good products but, not good businesses.

Fortunately, the scenario is changing with the costs of starting up a biotech company plunging to the order of the costs of starting a software company. Leaner biotech start-ups are springing up with solid products or science-as-a-service business models. Y Combinator, the top seed incubator and accelerator for 2012 according to Forbes and which has Airbnb and Dropbox among others in its portfolio, recently backed five biotech companies for the first time. Three of these were Ginkgo Bioworks, the Glowing Plant project and uBiome.

 Ginkgo Bioworks is making biology easier to engineer. If you need a bacteria to do some task, Ginkgo lets you build it by providing the tools to. They built the world’s first organism engineering foundry that is used by its team to build customized organisms for its clientele.  

The Glowing Plant Project is a Kickstarter project that raised a little less than half a million dollars last year. It is developing plants that have a dim glow. Other than serving as ornamental plants, it shows how much feasible and safe the applications of synthetic biology are. 

Another company is uBiome that, as its name suggests, is exploring the microbiome of individuals. It compares microbiomes of different individuals from its dataset which happens to be the largest of such privately-held datasets. In our body, for every human cell, there are 10 microbial cells. Differences in microbiomes of individuals have profound implications on our health that have been uncovered only recently.

What is causing the rise of lean biotech?

  1. Falling costs of DNA sequence and synthesis – The fall in prices (and the resulting DIY biology movement) has been instrumental in the fresh wave of biotech start-ups coming out of hacker spaces, and not just universities.
  2. Using automation for lab protocols –  Automation speeds up the work tremendously. It eliminates manual error and results in increased reproducibility.
  3. Use of cloud-based technologies – Along with automation, use of cloud ensures that scientists can focus on designing experiments than wasting time on monotonous gel runs or chromatographies.
  4. Open sourcing biological information – Information is power, and power shared is power amplified. 


  1. Why the first YC-backed biotech company may just be the future of pharma
  2. Glowing Plant is one of Y Combinator’s very first biotech startups, TechCrunch
  3. uBiome raises $4.5M from angel investors, Andreessen Horowitz to crowdsource microbiome research, TechCrunch

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