Perfeggt brings in first capital to shell out plant-based egg alternative

Sales of plant-based alternatives, like dairy and meat, are surging in the global market, and Perfeggt wants to do the same for the egg.

The Berlin-based foodtech company is poised to debut its chicken-less egg product in the first quarter of 2022 in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Today, the company announced it raised $2.8 million in its first funding round to aid the initial launch and then expand further in Europe later in 2022.

Backers in the round include EVIG Group, Stray Dog Capital, E2JDJ, Tet Ventures, Good Seed Ventures, Sustainable Food Ventures and Shio Capital.

Perfeggt CEO Tanja Bogumil co-founded the company, which is part of Lovely Day Foods GmbH, earlier this year with Gary Lin, EVIG’s founder and CEO, and Bernd Becker, who was a long-time head of R&D for Rügenwalder Mühle, a German vegetarian and vegan meat maker.

Bernd Becker, Gary Lin, Tanja Bogumil v.l.n.r. Perfeggt

Perfeggt co-founders, from left, Bernd Becker, Gary Lin and Tanja Bogumil. Image Credits: Patrycia Lukaszewicz

“I really believe we deserve better food,” Bogumil told TechCrunch. “My mother’s family is from an agriculture background in small-scale farming, so I have always been conscious of where the food we eat comes from. I turned vegetarian at 12 when my uncle brought me to a slaughterhouse to show me that the sausages I ate were not made the right way. I didn’t fully get what was happening there, but it didn’t feel right or humane.”

Unlike dairy, where there is already sustainability, she believes the egg is still largely untapped. Sure, there are companies making similar plant-based alternatives, like Simply Eggless and Just Eat, which raised $200 million earlier in the summer, but worldwide, more than 1.3 trillion eggs are produced annually, meaning there is room to grow, and applications are versatile, Bogumil said.

Perfeggt’s first plant-based egg product is a protein-rich liquid alternative made from fava beans. It can be prepared as a scrambled egg or omelet in the pan. The company will initially be launching its product with food service organizations.

As with all food, taste is king, and with this product, the co-founders worked to create similar mouth feel, sensory, flavors and textures — all elements that Bogumil says are needed to get people to switch to a plant-based equivalent.

“This is something we spent time on figuring out,” she added. “Our product is built around the fava bean, which is very suited to mimic functionality required for these applications.”

To do this, Perfeggt’s R&D site in Emsland, Germany works closely with Wageningen University & Research, known for its life sciences research, to test plant-based protein sources and their combinations that come closest to the nutritional and functional properties of animal products.

The new funding enables the company to build out its team at its headquarters and R&D facility. The company is currently hiring for food scientists, marketing and R&D.

Meanwhile, Bogumil believes that more companies coming into the egg alternative space will help Perfeggt’s mission to shift people to plant-based foods.

“This is not a one-winner-takes-all market,” she said. “We have never in history seen alternative proteins be so close to the mainstream market. Clearly that is reflected in the capital markets, and not just for developing niche markets, but for the future of food.”

“We are incredibly impressed by the team’s rapid technological progress in developing next-generation alternative proteins and finding solutions that improve human, planetary and animal health,” Stephanie Dorsey, founding partner at E2JDJ, added in a written statement. “The egg market is a massive opportunity and this is just the beginning.”

Longevica takes in $2.5M as it launches open research resources to examine life extension

Life science company Longevica said Wednesday it is launching an open research tool so scientists and research institutions can access a data set that tracks the effects of more than 1,000 pharmacological compounds for testing drugs.

This is the latest effort from the biotechnology company, which is researching mechanisms of healthy aging and life extension. To do this, the company took in $2.5 million in funding led by Xploration Capital.

In April, Longevica announced the launch of a line of supplements based on its research. The company got its start more than 11 years ago and has now raised over $15.5 million in funding from investors, including Alexander Chikunov, a longevity investor, who is also president of the company.

When the company emerged from stealth, it was primarily focused on finding the best ways to leverage the results of its research as soon as possible and bringing some consumer-ready products to market, Longevica co-founder and CEO Ainar Abdrakhmanov told TechCrunch via email.

“We still move along this path, which includes screening and trials; however, through a series of deep interviews, we found that most scientists in the longevity space lack infrastructure, and we decided to share our internal engine to leverage more research through partnerships and by giving researchers a data platform for their work,” he added.

Living longer is an area that other companies are working in as well, for both humans and pets. The global anti-aging drugs market was valued at nearly $8 billion in 2020 and is projected to double by 2027.

Meanwhile, Crunchbase News took a look at the status of longevity startups in July and found over 30 operating in the space that collectively raised billions of dollars. A more recent example is Loyal, which raised $27 million to examine longer lives in animals with a long-term vision of translating that into human longevity.

Longevica itself started fundraising when it came up with the idea of the end-to-end open research platform. The new funding will go toward supporting the platform’s development and integration of the company’s research data set.

The goal is to validate the pipeline of turning scientific research into consumer-ready products, Abdrakhmanov said.

“There’s a lot of hypotheses around ageing and lifespan, but there’s a clear bottleneck in actually testing those ideas to figure out who might be right,” he added. “Our platform should help the scientific community get a bit closer to the answers.”

Its original study, led by Chikunov and Longevica co-founder Dr. Alexey Ryazanov, tested 300 compounds and showed significant life extension properties. The company is close to publishing a peer-reviewed paper on that study. Abdrakhmanov called it “more of a moonshot project,” but also that this direction could bring results much sooner and be beneficial for the entire industry, something its investors were able to see, he added.

Armed with the new research capabilities, Longevica will now go deeper into testing those compounds with a new research study at Jackson Laboratory. In January, the company will also begin collecting applications from researchers interested in testing their drugs in a full-scale pharmacological screening experiment that will begin in June 2022.

“Also in January, we will start a public database including marked up data on most longevity-related experiments on mice, both public and some which haven’t been published yet,” Abdrakhmanov said. “The entire platform will be free and open source, even its program code will be publicly available on GitHub.”

Tiamat Sciences cooking up plant-based proteins for cheaper production of cellular meat

Cellular growth medium is a component of cellular agriculture that enables lab-grown meat to be made at a lower cost. However, the traditional ways of making these growth factors, or reagents, are costly themselves, which makes large-scale manufacturing difficult.

On average, reports show that lab-grown meat costs about $50, but that new technologies could bring that down to a more reasonable $3 per pound by 2030.

Tiamat Sciences is one biotech startup developing a more cost-effective biomolecule aimed at replacing more costly bioreactors. Today, it announced $3 million in seed financing, led by True Ventures, with participation from Social Impact Capital and Cantos.

France-Emmanuelle Adil, Tiamet Sciences

France-Emmanuelle Adil, founder and CEO, Tiamet Sciences. Image Credits: Tiamet Sciences

The company’s CEO, France-Emmanuelle Adil, founded the company in 2019 to manufacture animal-free proteins using a proprietary plant molecular farming approach that combines biotechnology, vertical farming and computation design to reinvent recombinant proteins.

“The growth factors used in media are expensive right now,” she told TechCrunch. “We can reduce costs drastically and reach price parity with meat.”

Adil estimates that today’s growth factor costs $2 million per gram to make, but she believes that with efforts from Tiamat Sciences and others, that cost could come down 10 times with a focus on making it 1,000 times cheaper by 2025 so that large-scale production can proceed.

Prior to the $3 million seed round, the company brought in a small round last July to give it $3.4 million in total funding to date. Adil wanted to expand the company, which was in Belgium, where it has an operating site, and moved to North Carolina in May.

The new funding will aid in building a pilot production facility in Durham, North Carolina and in technology development. The company is already on its way to reaching carbon-neutral production.

She was not able to disclose customers yet, but said the company is in development of its first product aimed for release by the end of the year. Tiamet would then be sending samples to customers for testing, which she believes will lead to some partnerships in 2022.

In addition to food, Adil says Tiamat’s approach could be applicable in other industries like regenerative medicine and vaccine production.

“Growth factors are transferable to other industries because the processes are similar,” she added. “We will be working on expansion for the end of 2022. We will scale very fast with a number of plants and then 100,000 plants. We are in discussion with companies to help us scale big but progressively.”

Phil Black, co-founder of True Ventures, said the investment into Tiamat Sciences fit into its plant-based portfolio. The initial money raised by the company allows them to prove to people that their technology works and to produce it at the trial level. Then will come a much larger round to scale up from liters to gallons.

“The cell meat industry is here to stay and now people are interested in making it more profitable for themselves and making more of it,” he added. “Limited factors exist, and Taimat’s solution will be a game-changer.”

‘Armageddon’ now: NASA’s asteroid-deflecting DART mission launches tonight

One of NASA’s most exciting and unusual missions in years, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), is scheduled to launch tonight on its way to strike and deflect an incoming space rock millions of miles from Earth. You can watch it live here, though it’ll be some time before the big smash happens.

DART is our first attempt as a spacefaring species to deliberately change the path of an oncoming asteroid. Rest assured this one in particular is no danger to our precious planet, but does happen to be a perfect test bed for the type of interception that might be necessary should such a danger appear.

“Planetary Defense has been working on the problem for, really, decades,” explained Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “It’s time to start getting together this toolset — it’s getting important for all our stakeholders. It’s really been in the last five years or so that the program has increased its support. And the target has been around for at least five years before that — people were talking about how this is really perfect, we can view its success from the ground, there’s no need for a second investigation.”

The asteroid in question is actually the smaller of two in a binary configuration, traveling like a married couple through the solar system. The larger asteroid, Didymos, is about half a mile wide — not quite a planet-killer, but you wouldn’t want it coming down in your neighborhood either. And around it orbits our target: Dimorphos, about 525 feet across and sort of peanut-shaped, it’s about the size the Statue of Liberty would go bouldering on.

What DART will do is fly right out there and, just when Dimorphos is coming around from the far side of Didymos, smash into it as hard as possible — and that’s quite hard, considering that the spacecraft will weigh about 1,210 pounds and its new ion engine will have propelled it to the eye-watering (if it had eyes, and there was air) speed of 4.1 miles per second. (That’s 550 kilograms at 6.6 km/s for our metric friends; I leave it to the boffins to calculate the approximate impact force.)

Diagram showing how the orbit of Dimorphos will change following impact.

Diagram showing how the orbit of Dimorphos will change following impact.

Dimorphos won’t explode and send fragments flying everywhere. Quite the opposite: the effect will be barely noticeable. But the impact will ever so slightly affect the period of its orbit around Didymos, slowing and expanding it to the point where a powerful telescope can perceive it. By observing this change scientists should be able to tell the mass of the object and how effective this refined technique of hitting a heavy thing with another thing actually was.

DART in its protective fairing before being loaded onto the rocket.

DART in its protective fairing before being loaded onto the rocket. Image Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

Once they know that, they can make an informed decision on what might be necessary if, for instance, an asteroid twice as large was in fact on a collision course. By applying this much force at this angle, at this time and distance (as far out as possible, one member of the team told me), we can divert it just enough that it won’t hit us. DART will be foundational to this sort of planetary defense work. Hopefully we won’t ever need it, but we can all agree it’s better to be prepared than have to muster a ragtag group of oil rig roughnecks to nuke the Big One at the last minute. That’s another “Armageddon” reference to keep our valued older readership engaged.

“What we’d really like to do with this is, we need to know how to size an impactor depending on the size of the threat coming in. We want an impactor model with a high degree of accuracy,” said Zurbuchen. One such mission may not be enough, and though there are no plans for another impact mission yet, “I could easily imagine that a follow-up test into a different asteroid type could be on the books.”

Of course though the impact may be relatively small, it will still be cool. So we’re sending up a partner spacecraft, LICIACube, that will watch from nearby, providing both data and crowd-pleasing footage of our attack on space mountain. Chances are it will just look like a puff of dust, gravel, and solar panel parts, but you never know. This might be the asteroid with something living in it. If so, it will still about 6.8 million miles away, so we won’t be in immediate danger. At any rate it’s hard to imagine ramming an asteroid with a spacecraft and not getting it on camera.

“It’s a high risk, high impact investigation,” Zurbuchen said of the companion cubesat, which will have to be perfectly positioned and watching closely at the time of impact. “We can be sure it worked without it, but… I want to see that movie, man.”

The launch window for DART, aboard its SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle, begins tonight at about 10:20 PM Pacific, and the weather at Vandenberg Space Force Base is looking 90 percent favorable in the latest reports. Once it’s out there it will be nearly a year before the spacecraft makes its destructive rendezvous with Dimorphos: impact is estimated to take place at the end of September 2022, though we’ll only know the exact time once the variables are locked down.

Pre-launch coverage will be happening all day on NASA Live, but tune in at about 7 PM for the real run-up and countdown to launch. You can watch below or at any of the links provided here.

‘Armageddon’ now: NASA’s asteroid-deflecting DART mission launches tonight

One of NASA’s most exciting and unusual missions in years, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), is scheduled to launch tonight on its way to strike and deflect an incoming space rock millions of miles from Earth. You can watch it live here, though it’ll be some time before the big smash happens.

DART is our first attempt as a spacefaring species to deliberately change the path of an oncoming asteroid. Rest assured this one in particular is no danger to our precious planet, but does happen to be a perfect test bed for the type of interception that might be necessary should such a danger appear.

“Planetary Defense has been working on the problem for, really, decades,” explained Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “It’s time to start getting together this toolset — it’s getting important for all our stakeholders. It’s really been in the last five years or so that the program has increased its support. And the target has been around for at least five years before that — people were talking about how this is really perfect, we can view its success from the ground, there’s no need for a second investigation.”

The asteroid in question is actually the smaller of two in a binary configuration, traveling like a married couple through the solar system. The larger asteroid, Didymos, is about half a mile wide — not quite a planet-killer, but you wouldn’t want it coming down in your neighborhood either. And around it orbits our target: Dimorphos, about 525 feet across and sort of peanut-shaped, it’s about the size the Statue of Liberty would go bouldering on.

What DART will do is fly right out there and, just when Dimorphos is coming around from the far side of Didymos, smash into it as hard as possible — and that’s quite hard, considering that the spacecraft will weigh about 1,210 pounds and its new ion engine will have propelled it to the eye-watering (if it had eyes, and there was air) speed of 4.1 miles per second. (That’s 550 kilograms at 6.6 km/s for our metric friends; I leave it to the boffins to calculate the approximate impact force.)

Diagram showing how the orbit of Dimorphos will change following impact.

Diagram showing how the orbit of Dimorphos will change following impact.

Dimorphos won’t explode and send fragments flying everywhere. Quite the opposite: the effect will be barely noticeable. But the impact will ever so slightly affect the period of its orbit around Didymos, slowing and expanding it to the point where a powerful telescope can perceive it. By observing this change scientists should be able to tell the mass of the object and how effective this refined technique of hitting a heavy thing with another thing actually was.

DART in its protective fairing before being loaded onto the rocket.

DART in its protective fairing before being loaded onto the rocket. Image Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

Once they know that, they can make an informed decision on what might be necessary if, for instance, an asteroid twice as large was in fact on a collision course. By applying this much force at this angle, at this time and distance (as far out as possible, one member of the team told me), we can divert it just enough that it won’t hit us. DART will be foundational to this sort of planetary defense work. Hopefully we won’t ever need it, but we can all agree it’s better to be prepared than have to muster a ragtag group of oil rig roughnecks to nuke the Big One at the last minute. That’s another “Armageddon” reference to keep our valued older readership engaged.

“What we’d really like to do with this is, we need to know how to size an impactor depending on the size of the threat coming in. We want an impactor model with a high degree of accuracy,” said Zurbuchen. One such mission may not be enough, and though there are no plans for another impact mission yet, “I could easily imagine that a follow-up test into a different asteroid type could be on the books.”

Of course though the impact may be relatively small, it will still be cool. So we’re sending up a partner spacecraft, LICIACube, that will watch from nearby, providing both data and crowd-pleasing footage of our attack on space mountain. Chances are it will just look like a puff of dust, gravel, and solar panel parts, but you never know. This might be the asteroid with something living in it. If so, it will still about 6.8 million miles away, so we won’t be in immediate danger. At any rate it’s hard to imagine ramming an asteroid with a spacecraft and not getting it on camera.

“It’s a high risk, high impact investigation,” Zurbuchen said of the companion cubesat, which will have to be perfectly positioned and watching closely at the time of impact. “We can be sure it worked without it, but… I want to see that movie, man.”

The launch window for DART, aboard its SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle, begins tonight at about 10:20 PM Pacific, and the weather at Vandenberg Space Force Base is looking 90 percent favorable in the latest reports. Once it’s out there it will be nearly a year before the spacecraft makes its destructive rendezvous with Dimorphos: impact is estimated to take place at the end of September 2022, though we’ll only know the exact time once the variables are locked down.

Pre-launch coverage will be happening all day on NASA Live, but tune in at about 7 PM for the real run-up and countdown to launch. You can watch below or at any of the links provided here.

UK-based mental health provider ieso raises $53M armed with an ‘unprecedented’ data set

UK-based digital therapy company ieso announced a $53 million Series B round on Tuesday. The round is the funding the company needs to move in a brand new direction: creating more intuitive autonomous text therapy. 

In other words, AI trained on thousands of hours of real-life therapy that can provide personalized sessions, over chat. 

ieso has been around for about ten years, and has been running a text-only therapy service (with human therapists on one end) through the UK’s National Health Service. So far, the company has provided text-based therapy for about 80,000 patients – though 6,000 are actively receiving therapy, Nigel Pitchford, ieso’s CEO told TechCrunch. That’s a total of 460,000 hours of therapy so far. 

“We’ll deliver some sort of 400 hours of therapy this evening, via our network,” said Pitchford. 

This most recent round of funding was led by Morningside, with participation from Sony Innovation Fund. It also included existing investors IP Group, Molten Ventures and Ananda Impact Ventures

Ultimately, ieso is looking to take itself from a human-based therapist based system, to a scaled up autonomous system. The idea of A.I. based chat therapy isn’t exactly unique in this space (we’ve covered other companies pursuing this) but the data behind ieso’s approach is what the company sees as its secret sauce. 

ieso’s “unfair advantage,” is ten years of real-life text-based conversations between patients and therapists, which Pitchford calls “transcripts of care.” That dataset is paired with real-time data on patient’s clinical outcomes, which the company has also been collecting alongside those transcripts. 

“ieso has built one of the most impressive data assets I have seen in the space with their text therapy dataset,” said Stephen Bruso, an investment partner at Morningside. The dataset is one aspect of ieso he finds most attractive as an investor, and called it “unprecedented.” 

This dataset has been used to track how certain therapeutic conversations or techniques are linked (or not linked) to patient improvement. And, there is some evidence ieso has managed to mine that data for insight. For example, the company published a paper in 2019 in JAMA Psychiatry analyzing 90,000 hours of therapy. The paper found that aspects of therapy like “planning for the future,” or certain cognitive behavioral therapy techniques were linked to better patient outcomes. 

Overall, the data suggested that 28 minutes out of every hour of therapy contained conversations or exercises that “directly affected” the patient outcome, said Andy Blackford, the company’s group chief science and strategy officer.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the paper also found that therapeutic empathy was negatively associated with patient outcomes – though other research has suggested clients have better outcomes when they feel their therapists understand them. Blackford interpreted the empathy finding as evidence that empathy should be employed alongside other therapeutic techniques. 

Ultimately, Pitchford sees this dataset, and analysis like the type conducted in that JAMA paper as a roadmap for how the A.I. based therapists will be trained and personalized. 

“So essentially, we’ve been studying what the very best therapists are doing at a very high scale, and then reconstructing that, so it can reach people that are unable to access human psychotherapy delivery, which is a huge problem all over the world,” he said. 

Even with this dataset, ieso does seem to be working in an increasingly crowded space. Funding for mental health startups is anticipated to crack $3 billion in 2021, per Q3 a Silicon Valley Bank Trend report. That means there are a lot of minds focused on the problems associated with traditional therapy right now. 

Bruso sees ieso as one of the few mental health companies that can point to real-world health outcomes, at least using their own dataset. 

“We believe that there is a unique synergy between ieso’s digital products built on real world data, and their ability to trial these products in their existing user base to generate outcomes data from day 1,” he said. “At the end of the day, the products that will last in the space will be those who can demonstrate a measurable impact on both individual health and societal outcomes.”

Blackford is also aware of how packed this space is – in fact, he sees it as a problem for consumers. These apps, ieso’s leadership figures, are often designed for either self-help, mindfulness, or patients with non-severe mental health diagnoses. 

Though ieso can treat people with non-advanced mental health struggles, the company also has a focus on moderate-to-severe diagnoses. It’s not, to use his words, a “wellness solution” – and can be used by groups who might require more intensive care. 

This focus means that safeguards for self-harm need to be especially strong. Blackford says the company has risk escalation protocols in place for its human-based therapy model that have been honed over the course of ten years as one of the largest mental health providers in the UK. The company has plans to incorporate those programs into the autonomous therapy product in the future.  

Right now, Blackford doesn’t anticipate a harder regulatory path because it’s looking to deal with higher-stakes mental health diagnoses. 

“The good thing is that there are precedents and predicates that we can use as we come to market. But the key thing will be about having, you know, demonstrably safe and effective products,” he said. 

The high volume of data the company has already collected will allow it to collect insights into efficacy and safety “many times faster” than you’d expect under regular clinical trial circumstances, Blackford argued. 

Going forwards, ieso plans to use this round to build out its A.I. based therapy arm, and shore up a presence in the US. The team is expected to grow to about 200 people by next year, which will set up a push to go to market over in the next two years. 

Helaina’s latest round brings it closer to market with human milk-equivalent baby formula

Helaina, a company producing a first-of-its-kind infant milk, announced $20 million in Series A financing to usher in its next phase of growth that includes beginning the manufacturing and commercialization process for its first product.

Food scientist Laura Katz, who also teaches food science at New York University, founded the company in 2019, and touts it as “the first company making functional human proteins for food.”

To do this, Helaina is tapping into a precision fermentation process that programs yeast cells and teaches them to become manufacturing hubs to develop almost identical proteins found in human milk.

“When we started Helaina, there was a lot of technology going into a lot of industries, but feeding babies had not advanced too much,” Katz told TechCrunch. “For me, when I thought about where in the population to advance nutrition and health, infants and parents were the first thing that came to me.”

As the infant formula market, poised to be a $103 billion market by 2026, grows, there continues to be shame and stigma around how to feed children in their early years, and Helaina aims to provide parents with a choice of foods that are priced to be accessible to all, but also support as they examine their choices, she said.

Helaina created its first protein and now wants to create all of breast milk’s components, though one at a time. Not only will its product provide calories, but also it will help to build immunity against fungal, bacterial and viral diseases.

The company’s latest round was co-led by Spark Capital and Siam Capital, and includes Plum Alley and Primary Venture Partners. It gives the company $24.6 million in total funding, which includes a $4.6 million combined round of pre-seed and seed investments from 2019 and 2020, respectively, Katz said.

It was a planned round, but what Katz noted was unexpected was the “overwhelming interest” in the company from investors.

“What we found in raising money is such a personal connection to what we are doing,” she added. “So much is happening in food tech, but seeing the ability to use this tech for a product so close to people’s heart has been overwhelming. Lots of people are interested in what we are doing.”

The Series A will enable the company to scale with manufacturing partners to prepare for commercialization. The goal is to grow capability, round out the executive team and finalize go-to-market plans.

The company is working to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its product and then has plans to use its proteins in a host of consumer products that will be clinically proven, essentially creating a new category within the consumer sector that broadens the definition of nutrition to include immunity, Katz said.

Helaina is not alone in working to create a formula that is more nutritious and best resembles human milk. Earlier this year, Bobbie raised $15 million in Series A funding for its formula modeled after European brands. ByHeart is also developing a formula, while Biomilq says it has produced the “world’s first cell-cultured human milk outside of the breast.”

Katz says the approach her company is taking to create the proteins and focus on making a product that is better in terms of health outcomes is what differentiates Helaina from its competitors.

“Helaina is the first company to bring human proteins to food,” she added. “No one else has done this before. As we expand technology to parents to feed growing children, we are creating this new category that is like consumer immunology.”

Meanwhile, the company is one of the first investments that Sita Chantramonklasri made from her new fund, Siam Capital, which she said invests in businesses that are at the intersection of sustainability and consumer need.

Chantramonklasri spends a lot of her time in the food tech space and heard about Helaina long before she was connected with Katz by Kevin Thau, who led the seed round for Spark Capital, she said.

At the time, she was doing a deep dive into the breast milk space and was looking at some of the novel technology in the space from some of Helaina’s competitors. She spent a lot of time with Katz to understand her background and what Helaina was doing in the space. After spending time in the laboratory and seeing the company’s yeast engineering experience, Chantramonklasri said she felt that Helaina was providing a science-forward product.

“Laura is a fantastic founder and wise beyond her years [she’s 29 years old!] and wants to see the mission of Helaina through,” she added. “The market will get more competitive and timing is the play as is customer loyalty. Helaina is in a position to be an advocate for mothers and families. From a technology standpoint, it is too early to tell what will happen. We see innovation in other cell culture technologies like the Biomilq, but Helaina will be a leader in the space from a progress standpoint.”

 

Generate Biomedicines raises $370M Series B with a focus on protein-based drugs

The drug development space is continuing to attract more and more investment. On Thursday, another major player Generate Biomedicines announced a $370 million Series B round. 

Generate Biomedicines is touting an platform-based approach to drug development, but with its own spin: a focus on proteins. 

Generate’s thesis is simple: rather than making connections between targets and proteins that already exist in nature (or, most often, in scientific data and literature), it aims to understand the big picture: “foundational principles” about how proteins are made and why they do what they do (which is, basically everything, in the body). The ultimate goal is to use this knowledge to make novel proteins that could one day perform “the majority of life’s functions” as Mike Nally the CEO of Generate Biomedicines told TechCrunch. 

Over the last three years, the company has managed to put such fundamental principles to use. 

“We’ve been able to generate novel proteins across all protein modalities, and so that includes antibodies, peptides, enzymes, and cell and gene therapy,” Nally said. 

Generate Biomedicines is another one of a growing cadre of companies fostered by Flagship Pioneering – the investor behind Moderna. The company emerged from stealth back in 2020 with an initial investment of $50 million from the firm, in line with what we’ve seen in other Flagship companies, like the newly launched Alltrna.

This most recent round is Generate Biomedicine’s first significant attempt at external financing. The round will include Alaska Permanent Fund, Altitude Life Science Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, and funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc, as well as additional investment from Flagship Pioneering. 

So far, Generate Biomedicine seems to have had little trouble generating interest. 

One one hand, the company could be benefitting from general trends. Venture capital investment in drug discovery nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, reaching $16.2 billion. Meanwhile, investment in AI based Drug development has also snowballed. Per a Stanford University 2020 report, it reached $13.9 billion in 2020, over four times the level of funding in 2019. In August 2021, funding had reached $10.7 billion, per a Signify Research report

This round is large, but isn’t too far off of numbers seen this year for companies occupying a similar space: like Insilico Medicine’s $255 million Series C, or Cellarity’s (another Flagship Pioneering Company) $123 million Series B. 

Generate Biomedicines’ leadership chalks up the size of this round to the company’s new take on protein biology, and protein-based drug development as a whole. 

Therapeutic proteins, particularly monoclonal antibodies, are making up a bigger and bigger share of the drug market. In 2018, seven of the top ten best-selling drugs were monoclonal antibodies. A 2020 report by Bioprocess International Magazine found that global sales of monoclonal antibodies have grown faster than all other biopharmaceuticals in the last five years. 

Monoclonal antibodies are perhaps most well-known in the realms of oncology and immunology. But use cases are expanding. For example, monoclonal antibodies, like those manufactured by Eli Lilly to treat Covid-19 is an example of a therapeutic protein that you’ve likely already heard of. 

Generate Biomedicines is focused on all protein modalities, but they have initially focused on developing antibodies, which Nally says make up about 60 percent of the protein-based biotherapeutics market. 

Still, generating antibodies is just part of the picture. The focus on foundational principles of protein function allows for an untapped level of bespoke protein design, adds Molly Gibson, co-founder and chief strategy innovation officer. 

To wrap your head around the scale, think of all the proteins that have been honed by natural selection since the beginning of life. Those proteins only represent a tiny fraction of the total possible proteins that our building blocks of life are capable of forming.

“The amount of sequence space that nature has sampled through the history of life would equate to almost just a drop of water in all of Earth’s oceans,” said Gibson. 

Generate Biomedicine’s approach is to use artificial intelligence to understand what other functional proteins we might be capable of making, as opposed to identifying untapped extant proteins. 

That said, therapeutic proteins aren’t the easiest drugs to make. Historically, the immune system hasn’t exactly been receptive to novel proteins. Gibson says the company’s technology can work around this roadblock. She says the company can “co-optimize” for immunogenicity and protein function. 

In order to do this, we have developed a proprietary experimental approach to measure and ML approach to learn how proteins are recognized by the immune system, so we can ultimately avoid it,” she said. 

Overall, Generate Biomedicines sees itself as both a drugmaker, and a platform. The company has several drug candidates in preclinical stages (the focus is infectious disease, oncology and immunology, says Nally). The goal is to pursue Investigational New Drug status by 2023.

But Generate Biomedicines’ major upside, per Nally, is that it’s a platform for other to smooth out the process of protein-based drug development in general. In the past Nally has indicated that partnerships would be part of Generate Biomedicine’s strategy. But so far, the company hasn’t disclosed any. Though he added the company is looking for partners with deep disease area expertise, or expertise on certain targets. 

With this current round of funding, Generate Biomedicine plans to scale up its workforce to 500 — the company has 80 employees at the moment. The company is also building two facilities to expand its wet lab, machine learning and data generation capabilities. 

EasyHealth, a startup targeting the Medicare experience, announces $135M Series A

EasyHealth, a startup focused on navigating the Medicare experience, announced a $135 million Series A round on Thursday. EasyHealth has a simple purpose: to help enroll, and follow-up with (more on this later), people eligible for Medicare. But the bigger picture is that the company is aiming to fill a major “information gap” facing insurance companies along the way. 

EasyHealth was founded in 2020 (initially under the name Medicare Advisors 365, but has since rebranded to EasyHealth), and this most recent round represents the company’s total financing. The $135 million Series A consists of a $100 million credit facility, and $35 million in equity financing. The round was led by Anthemis Group and QED Investors and included Victory Park Capital, Nationwide Ventures, Healthy Ventures, Brewer Lane, and Operator Partners. 

In some sense, EasyHealth is reminiscent of insurance brokerages – third parties that help people pick between Medicare-eligible insurance plans. EasyHealth can connect users with Medicare Advantage plans (Medicare-approved plans offered by private insurers) or other Medicare supplements or prescription drug plans that partner with medicare. 

Picking these plans can be a fraught process. In New York alone, there are 280 Medicare Advantage Plans and 19 stand-alone Medicare prescription drug plans to pick from according to the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services

That’s a lot of insurance jargon to weed through. In response, about 96 percent of Medicare Advantage and Part D (the drug add-on) plans contract with agents to help sell plans. (Though some studies have suggested that these agents don’t represent all the available options). 

EasyHealth represents about 30-40 percent of Medicare Advantage plans, said CEO David Duel. 

So far, the company has managed to enroll about 40,000 people in Medicare-based plans, per Duel. However, its aiming to be more than a broker. EasyHealth is particularly interested in follow-up up with enrollees. 

That is what Duel sees as a “core differentiation” between EasyHealth and an insurance broker. 

“There’s a lot of brokers and a lot of great companies that support enrollment and support the brokerage function. We’re going beyond just enrollment and having these clinical functions in house by employing a network of nurse practitioners, doctors and medical assistants to do in-home assessments, and meet the members in their home.”

Once a broker helps someone enroll in a healthcare plan, insurers will occasionally send a healthcare professional (usually not someone’s PCP) in-person to do a home visit. These visits are designed to detect chronic conditions or other conditions that might indicate underlying health problems that an insurance company can’t know about before enrollment. 

That “information gap” between a patient’s true health status and what an insurer actually knows  is the pain point Duel is trying to address. 

“If a health insurance plan or a PCP doesn’t know what conditions a member has, they’ll only find out if once the issue becomes chronic, or the guy ends up in the hospital. So having that first party collect preventative data is super, super critical,” he said. 

Duel says that the company has conducted “a few thousand” home visits so far. 

Home visits can also be a money-maker for insurance companies that partner with Medicare. These home visits allow insurers to detect conditions they may otherwise miss. That allows them to adjust “risk scores” assigned to each patient. Higher scores allow companies to bill Medicare for the higher anticipated cost. 

In general, there’s some evidence that home visits can reduce hospitalizations. The Center for Medicare Services also encourages Medicare Advantage companies to conduct health risk assessments, including home visits, because they offer an opportunity to develop a plan of care, deliver an intervention, or adjust a care plan. 

But these home visit health assessments have also been controversial. A 2014 report by the Center for Public Integrity found that home visits had skyrocketed, and had likely led to more payments for insurance companies, while government regulators cast doubt on their effectiveness for patients. 

An Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services issued a report in September 2021, showing that 20 Medicare Advantage companies (a small proportion overall), had driven a disproportionately large share of Medicare spending through diagnosis made, in large part, through health risk assessments. The benefits patients were receiving as a result of this increased spending was not clear, per the report. 

It is possible that beneficiaries are receiving care, but plans are not submitting this data as required,” acknowledged Christi Grimm, Principal Deputy Inspector General of the. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in an op-ed summarizing the report.   

“Regardless, plans that use risk assessments to gather diagnoses, but then take no further action, are clearly missing an opportunity for meaningful care coordination.” 

Overall, the home visit can be a useful tool and an opportunity to improve care. But the concept has also faced criticism when it comes to spending and patient outcomes. 

Duel, for his part, argues these home-visits do drive better care in the long-term.  

“We are facilitating the shift from a reactive care to a proactive care model,” he said. 

“The member gets a detailed education on their benefits and how to utilize them. The members get comprehensive clinical and social determinant screening which uncovers potential conditions and allows the providers to build the right care plan. If providers and payers are not aware of conditions due to poor engagement which is very common, they are unable to proactively manage care.”

So far EasyHealth has been able to get more people to complete home assessments. For example, with Bright Health, an insurance company partner, Duel says EasyHealth has led to an 80 percent visit completion rate, compared to industry averages “between five and 20 percent” he estimates. 

EasyHealth plans to use the $135 million raised to drive this “independent broker space.” The $100 million credit facility portion of this raise will be used to provide technology tools and capital to independent brokers to help them enroll members in Medicare. EasyHealth can then “leverage that membership” to provide the clinical followup portion of its business (the visits). 

Going forward, the membership enrollment will take a back seat to the clinical visit side of things – that’s EasyHealth’s internal core competency. Though the company will keep a hand in enrollment too. 

 

With new tech and $3.6M seed, DiviGas aims to clean up hydrogen production

Hydrogen is at the center of many industrial processes and potentially part of major future energy ecosystems, but the process of isolating and storing it is wasteful and expensive. DiviGas, armed with a $3.6M seed round, hopes to clean up the hydrogen production industry with a new tech that leapfrogs existing methods, potentially supercharging this piece of the new green economy.

While hydrogen itself is generally considered a clean and extremely useful basic element, its production is married to numerous dirty industrial processes. Oil refineries and plastic production, for instance, may give off various hydrocarbons and other mixed gases and chemicals, and to separate them requires further processing and emissions.

One cleaner and simpler option than chemical reactions uses membranes or filters, which essentially separate the H2 and CO2 gases from each other and from other substances in the input stream. But these filters cannot operate at high temperatures, output some gases at low pressures that must be re-pressurized at cost, and rapidly degrade in the presence of common acidic gases.

Essentially the hydrogen diversion industry — and it’s big, by the way, billions big — is split between an expensive, emissions-heavy option and a cheap, limited option. After meeting in Singapore at one of SOSV’s HAX incubators, the founders of DiviGas plan to provide a third that has none of the aforementioned weaknesses.

The company claims to have engineered a new “hollow fiber polymeric membrane” at the angstrom scale, which is to say one tenth of a nanometer. It’s not like they designed a filter the size of an atom, but rather that the functional features of the material are at this scale, producing the kind of highly specialized effect desired — in this case, causing hydrogen and carbon dioxide gas to separate at slightly different pressures, allowing them to be diverted and isolated.

Electron microscope image of the fibers and their internal structure.

Image Credits: Divigas

Huge numbers of fibers are bundled together into tubes through which the input gas is forced, with no chemical reactants required. Unlike other membranes, this new one can operate at high temperatures — up to 150 degrees C — and is resistant to common acidic compounds in the gas mix formed from sulfur and chlorine, which means it can handle more caustic and untreated input flows without degrading. And it does so while performing as well or better than the old membranes on basic scales of selectivity (affecting output purity) and permeance (which affects maximum operable pressure).

Because the method is the same in principle as existing membrane techniques, DiviGas’s tech can be substituted in with minimal fuss and modification. And although manufacturing the new fibers is not a trivial task, they aren’t particularly exotic and use many existing processes. As co-founder, CTO, and creator of the new material Ali Naderi explained, it’s the result of various cutting edge innovations but ultimately still easy to manufacture.

“To make it economically viable, we developed a dual-layer hollow fiber membrane to use the functional materials (i.e., expensive materials) as low as possible on the selective layer (i.e., outer layer) and a cheap/commercially available polymer in the mechanical support layer (i.e., inner layer),” he wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “This type of membrane can be fabricated commercially by using a customized spinning line that has the same price as a standard spinning line has.”

Divigas fibers next to an assembled small-scale metal part.

Image Credits: Divigas

The prospect of simpler, cleaner hydrogen and CO2 production has been met with extreme enthusiasm by people in the industry, according to co-founder and CEO Andre Lorenceau.

“We’ve got clients banging down our door, asking us when we can give tens of millions of these things to them,” he said. “This round is us playing catch-up.”

The money is going towards building a pilot-scale plant in Melbourne that should be operational in March; currently it takes months to build a single unit (a usable bundle of fibers) for demonstrations, and a given client might want hundreds or thousands on a regular basis. Once the company is able to build them at a rate of around one a week, they can do larger demonstrations and small installations that will secure serious orders — and those proceeds will go towards building out out the full-scale manufacturing process.

“It’s two or three times more expensive right now, but they don’t care,” Lorenceau said (though the price will come down with volume, he added). “They say, ‘It’s a tech I know, a manufacturing process I know — if you can give it to us at that price it’s Gucci.’ And it’s a lot of clients, and we haven’t even been doing sales.”

The competitive landscape, he added, is conducive to quick action on their part, being full of slow movers and stalled startups.

“There are these giant lumbering corporations, they have a department for this and they do improve, but it’s old guard. Same reason why it isn’t the old PhDs of computer science who build the next generation of software tech — they’re not trying to build next-gen weird shit all the time,” he said. “The startups are also research PhD people who aren’t used to the high speed VC thing. They have excellent research performance, but in terms of manufacturing, it costs a zillion bucks to make a square inch of the damn stuff. They say, ‘we’ll figure out the manufacturability…’ and they never do. So we can leapfrog them and the big corporations.”

The $3.6M round was led by Mann + Hummel, a German industrial filter company clearly looking to get ahead of the game. Also participating in the round were Entrepreneur First, Albert Wenger (USV), SOSV/HAX, Energy Revolution Ventures, Amasia VC, Volta.vc, and Climate Capital, along with several individual investors.