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Venturing forth: bit.bio – reprogramming stem cells to allow manufacture of human cells

 

Biotech firm bit.bio, which was on the Accelerate Cambridge programme at Cambridge Judge Business School, reprograms stem cells to allow manufacture of human cells.

It is now possible to turn stem cells into pure cultures of brain cells, muscle cells, etc., within days.
Mark Kotter.
Mark Kotter

Mark Kotter, a University of Cambridge stem cell biologist and neurosurgeon who founded biotech firm bit.bio in 2016, recalls the initial peer reaction to the firm’s opti-ox technology that allows the manufacture of any human cell type through direct reprogramming of stem cells.

“Nobody, including myself, expected that it would be possible to turn stem cells into pure cultures of brain cells, muscle cells, etc., within days. When we tried to publish it, at first, the reviewers did not believe us.”

The scientific community slowly turned around: in spring 2017 the breakthrough was published in the article “Inducible and Deterministic Forward Programming of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells into Neurons, Skeletal Myocytes, and Oligodendrocytes” by Mark and colleagues in the journal Stem Cells Reports – outlining a “powerful platform for the generation of human cell types by forward programming”. bit.bio has since gone from strength to strength, raising $41.5m in Series A funding in 2019 and $103m in Series B funding in November 2021.

Institutional and strategic investors in the Series B round include Arch Ventures, Charles River Laboratories, Foresite Capital, National Resilience, Metaplanet, Puhua Capital and Tencent.

Big ambitions for cell therapies

The firm’s ambitions are expansive: to “support the widespread use of cell therapies, making them more affordable, but also enabling entirely new cell therapies for almost any human disease,” says Mark.

The venture was initially called Elpis Biomed after the Greek goddess of hope and a symbol of plenty, and changed its name to bit.bio to represent the coming together of “the building blocks of code and the cells that are the building blocks of life”.

Enrolled in Accelerate Cambridge in 2016

In 2016 the startup enrolled in the Accelerate Cambridge mentoring and business development programme at the Entrepreneurship Centre of Cambridge Judge Business School, which Mark said was “like drinking from the water hose. It exposed me to a myriad of things in the shortest possible time. It is the experience being thrown in at the deep end and being surrounded by like-minded people.”

Mark says he came up with the idea for technology that can reprogram stem cells into cells for use in research and disease modelling while working at the Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, and the venture then developed as a spin out from the University of Cambridge. Just five years on, bit.bio now has its headquarters in Cambridge’s Babraham Research Campus and another office in San Francisco, and employs more than 130 people.

“Once we know the gene combinations that induce stem cells to become specialised cell types, our technology is capable of consistently and robustly producing these cells in large numbers,” says Mark. “This means that human cells would be available for research and drug discovery, hopefully minimising the requirements placed on animal models, and, moreover, these human cells can be much more effective than the animal models for studying human disease.”

Range of customers

bit.bio‘s customers include large pharmaceuticals, biotech companies, and contract research organisations. A partnership with Charles River Laboratories, also an investor, is designed to help Charles River clients in their validation and screening services to enable the development of therapies with a higher chance of patient success.

When asked about his entrepreneurial journey, Mark confessed it was a bumpy ride with plenty of mistakes along the way – but it taught him what really matters to build a successful firm: “Everything depends on the right people, with the right mindset being aligned with a bold mission.”