In the dynamic intersection of biotechnology and artificial intelligence, Cradle, a startup that emerged from stealth just over a year ago, is making significant strides with its innovative approach to protein design. The company recently secured a substantial $24 million in new investment, indicating growing confidence in its unique technology.
While many AI companies in biotech focus on training models to understand molecular structures, Cradle takes a different route. The startup views the long sequences of amino acids constituting proteins as an “alien programming language.” Recognizing the complexity of this language, Cradle believes that while it may be challenging for a person to learn, an AI model can decipher it. This insight opens up new possibilities for protein design and manipulation.
Traditionally, creating a functional protein from scratch is a time-consuming and intricate process, often involving years of work and numerous wet-lab experiments. Cradle’s technology aims to revolutionize this by significantly reducing both the time and the number of experiments required.
The company claims that its approach can potentially halve the development time for proteins. While specific details on the extent of these time savings are not thoroughly substantiated, Cradle offers an illustrative example from its internal development efforts. In a case involving T7 RNA polymerase, an RNA production enzyme, the startup used its software to generate alternate versions of the enzyme that would be more resistant to high temperatures. Typically, under 5% of purposefully tweaked molecules might exhibit the desired aspect, but Cradle reported an impressive 70% success rate with its variants, equivalent to running four or five experimental runs in one.
Cradle’s generative AI approach has not gone unnoticed by major players in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Companies like Johnson & Johnson and Novozymes have shown interest, recognizing the potential of Cradle’s technology to streamline their drug development processes.
The startup’s platform allows researchers and scientists to interact with the AI model, posing questions such as which of a set of proteins is most likely to survive at room temperature or in an acidic environment. While it doesn’t enable a straightforward command like “make a protein that does this,” it empowers researchers to navigate the complexity of protein design more efficiently.
Cradle is not limiting its technology to drug development; it sees broader applications in food and industrial sectors. The versatility of its platform positions it as a valuable tool beyond the confines of pharmaceutical research. The company is working on diverse projects, including a dehalogenase for soil decontamination, a growth factor for cultured meat products, a transaminase for understanding certain diseases, and an antibody therapeutic.
Cradle’s CEO and co-founder, Stef van Grieken, emphasized the potential of their platform to accelerate the research and development phase, enabling partners to bring bio-based products to market faster and more cost-effectively. As the company and its partners have conducted several rounds of experimentation on the platform, they are witnessing promising results with models generalizing well across different types of proteins and tasks.
Cradle’s journey is not just about groundbreaking technology; it also sheds light on the challenges and opportunities of building a biotech startup in Europe. While the European ecosystem may pose fundraising complexities compared to the US, van Grieken highlighted the underappreciated talent pool in Europe.
He pointed to the presence of major tech companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook in Zurich, with thousands of engineers. Additionally, the talent emerging from ETH and EPFL, renowned universities for computer science and molecular biology, adds to the competitive advantage. The competition for talent is less intense than in the Bay Area, and Europe boasts many of the largest pharma and biotech companies globally.
Despite the fundraising challenges, van Grieken sees the European ecosystem developing rapidly, driven by a convergence of talent, academic excellence, and proximity to key industry players.
Cradle’s recent $24 million A round, following a $5.5 million seed round last year, reflects growing confidence in the startup’s potential. The funding was led by previous investor Index Ventures, with participation from Kindred Capital and individual investors like Chris Gibson and Tom Glocer.
The company plans to utilize the capital to fuel its growth, expanding its team and boosting sales efforts. Cradle’s unique position at the intersection of biotechnology and AI, with a focus on practical applications in protein design, positions it as a promising player in the evolving landscape of bio-based product development.