Most industries today are experiencing an unprecedented data deluge – and synthetic biology is no exception. Twenty years ago, a typical biological experiment generated 3-5 megabytes of information. Today, a routine synthetic biology workflow produces anywhere from 1,000 to 40,000 terabytes. That is a billion times more data! Such a large number of data points is simply impossible to interpret by human eye. This is why almost every bio lab today has to set up custom bioinformatics pipelines, invest in cloud computing, and master advanced data visualization software – all that just to see the results of their experiments.
A San Francisco startup, LatchBio, hopes to make data analysis much easier for biologists with its full-stack biocomputing infrastructure. LatchBio emerged from stealth mode in 2021 with a $5 million seed funding round led by Lux Capital. Since then, they have been scaling quickly: in June 2022, they raised another $28 million through essentially an unsolicited Series A round.
So, what is all the hype about? LatchBio is providing end-to-end biocomputing solutions that can be accessed from anywhere via a browser. This is a groundbreaking solution to simplify biological data analysis that requires no coding, no servers, and no dedicated personnel. Using their platform, any researcher can upload files and access dozens of bioinformatics pipelines and data visualization tools – like analyzing RNA sequencing data, designing CRISPR edits, and even running “heavy” computational programs like AlphaFold – from their laptop.
LatchBio’s backers and advisors include visionary VC funds like Fifty Years and Haystack, the founder of Asimov Alec Nielsen, the Longevity Fund founder Laura Deming, and the famed Harvard Professor George Church. And despite being new to the scene, the company’s founders have already made the Forbes 30 under 30 in Healthcare list. Both Deming and LatchBio’s CEO Alfredo Andere will be in Oakland, CA, at the SynBioBeta conference in May, where you can join them for a fireside chat.
Good Things Come in Threes
LatchBio is led by a charismatic trio: Alfredo Andere (CEO), Kyle Giffin (COO), and Kenny Workman (CTO). The three founders came out of UC Berkeley and had plenty of business experience before they even started the company. Workman was studying bioengineering and computer science at Berkeley and simultaneously gaining real-world biotech experience at Berkeley Lab, Joint BioEnergy Institute, Asimov, and Serotiny. Working as a machine learning and software engineer at these companies, he had to grapple with the convoluted and tangled infrastructures of bioinformatics workflows that required a lot of effort to set up:
“I was tasked multiple times to go out and find software vendors to do specific things like store files, analyze files, or set up machine learning workflows, and there were no readily available options,” recalls Workman. This experience served as an initial impetus to create a solution for this all-too-common problem.
Workman’s insights from working at biotech startups collided with the interests of LatchBio’s two other co-founders. CTO Kyle Giffin was studying cognitive neuro and data science and working as a data analyst at various companies from consumer products to investment banking. He found that in each of those sectors data analysis was easy and streamlined – a stark contrast to what was happening in the biology world.
Similarly, Alfredo Andere, the company’s CEO, was familiar with the state-of-the-art tech from his internships at Facebook and Google. All three of them saw an opportunity to bring biology’s data infrastructure up to par. After a year and a half of working together in this space and with one semester left to go, they dropped out of Berkeley and launched LatchBio.
Typically, synthetic biology companies have to set up their own cloud infrastructure, software interfaces, regulatory data tracking, workflow automation, and data analysis pipelines to process the biological data they generate. As this technology stack keeps growing, infrastructure maintenance distracts researchers from designing experiments and gaining meaningful insights, creating a huge bottleneck in the pace of innovation. After working with half a dozen biotech companies to help them set up the bioinformatics infrastructure, LatchBio’s founders recognized they needed a generalizable solution:
“We started to see patterns between these companies and wanted to build a generalizable infrastructure that they could all use,” says Kyle Giffin. To do that, they talked to over 300 people to find out what problems people in the industry had and what solutions were needed:
“Let’s go ask our customers, let’s be obsessed with our customers,” Andere recalls the early days at the company. They listened to what the customers wanted and built the platform by taking the best practices from existing software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers. And it proved to be an effective strategy: LatchBio already has over 30 paying customers who run over 10,000 workflows every month. These include industry-leading organizations like the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), BitBio, and Eligo Bioscience. A large portion of their customers are companies working on the discovery of therapeutic candidates:
“A lot of the software that we’re building right now is for drug discovery in the early preclinical stage,” says Giffin. LatchBio’s goal is to develop workflows that cover the entire drug development pipeline, from pre-clinical discovery R&D to clinical testing, as well as incorporating public datasets to discover new therapies faster.
A new kind of company
LatchBio’s team is made up of a rare breed of scientists fluent in two languages – coding and DNA. But for their customers, they are making it possible to do anything from CRISPR data analysis to therapeutic discovery without ever having to write a line of code. At the same time, the platform gives users the flexibility to customize their workflows: “Everything on Latch has code tools that a single power user can go in and modify to meet your team’s needs.”
The goal of LatchBio is not only to empower biologists to analyze vast troves of data but to bridge the gap between industry and academia. The LatchBio manifesto reads: “The Internet has become a kitchen sink for the residual yet valuable data exhaust of the academic machine. We need to be continuously mining this space for insight and knowledge that can be encoded into therapeutics and new biological building blocks.” This relationship goes both ways, as the company’s platform is free for academic use:
“Academia is the lifeblood of the biotech industry,” thinks Workman. “But there’s a lag time between when things are discovered in a lab at a university and when that technology can be applied in industry. We want to make biotech faster with software.”
“I want to see a biotech industry that moves much faster,” seconds Andere. “Latch can create that leap where computationally the work is being done 10 or 100 times faster,” he envisions.
Thank you to Katia Tarasava for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta and some of the companies I write about, such as LatchBio, are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest.