Part of the complex process that turns raw materials into finished products such as detergents, cosmetics and flavorings relies on enzymes that enable chemical conversions. But finding the right enzyme for a new or proposed drug or additive is a lengthy and almost random process – what Allozyme aims to change itself with a remarkable new system that could set a new standard in the industry and has raised a $ 5 million seed round for commercialization.
Enzymes are chains of amino acids, the “building blocks of life” among the many things that are encoded in DNA. These large, complex molecules bind to other substances in a way that enables a chemical reaction, such as converting sugar in a cell into a more usable form of energy.
Enzymes are also found in the manufacturing world, where large companies have identified and isolated enzymes that do valuable work, such as taking some cheap basic ingredients and combining them into a more useful form. Any company that sells or needs a lot of a particular chemical that isn’t abundant in nature likely has enzymatic processes in place to make more of it.
But it is not that there is only one enzyme for everything. When you are inventing new molecules from scratch, like a novel drug or flavor, there is no reason why there should be a naturally occurring enzyme to react with or create it. No animal synthesizes allergy drugs in its cells. As a result, companies need to find or manufacture new enzymes that do what is needed. The problem is that enzymes are generally at least 100 units long and there are 20 amino acids to choose from, which means you will see tons of variations for even the simplest novel enzyme.
By starting with known enzymes and working systematically through seemingly intuitive variations, researchers are able to find new and useful enzymes, but the process is complex and slow, even with full automation: at most a few hundred a day and that is when you have a top notch robotic laboratory.
So when Allozymes comes up with the claim that it is up to ten million per day you can imagine how much change that means.
Allozymes was founded by Peyman Salehian (CEO) and Akbar Vahidi (CTO), two Iranian chemical engineers who met during their PhD at the National University of Singapore. The three-year research on the commercial product also took place at NUS, which holds the patent and licenses it exclusively to the company.
“The state of the art has not changed in 20 years,” said Salehian. “If we talk to GSK, Pfizer, Merck, they have whole departments for it, they have $ 2 million worth of robots, and it still takes a year to get a new enzyme.”
The Allozymes platform will accelerate the process by several orders of magnitude while decreasing the cost by an order of magnitude, said Salehian. If these estimates are confirmed, the enzyme search will be effectively trivialized and billions in investments and infrastructure will be redundant. Why pay more to get less?
Traditionally, enzymes are isolated and selected in a multi-step process in which DNA templates are introduced into cells, which are then cultivated to generate the target enzymes, which are analyzed by robots once a certain growth state has been reached. If there are promising results, go this route with more variations, otherwise start over. There’s a lot of picking and storage, waiting for enough cells to produce enough of the stuff, and so on.
The process developed by Salehian and Vahidi is completely contained with a small tabletop device the size of a microwave and creates almost no waste. Instead of using culture dishes, the device brings the necessary cells, substrate and other ingredients in a tiny droplet into a microfluidic system. The reactions take place in this tiny drop, which is incubated, tracked, and ultimately collected and tested in a fraction of the time a larger sample would take.
However, Allozymes does not sell the device. It’s enzyme engineering as a service, and at the moment your partners and customers seem happy with it. The primary service is tailored to the needs of the project. For example, a company may already have a working enzyme and just want a variant that is easier to synthesize or less dependent on certain expensive additives. With a solid starting point and a flexible goal that may be a smaller project. Another company may want to completely replace hard chemical processes in its manufacture, knows the beginning and the end of the process, but needs an enzyme to fill the gaps; that could be a bigger and more expensive project.
Vahidi stated that the goal is not to “democratize” enzyme engineering. It’s still expensive and big enough to be done mostly by large corporations, but now they can get hundreds of thousands of times that out of their R&D dollars. The speed and value sets it apart from the competition, Sahelian said, with companies like Codexis, Arzeda and Ginkgo Bioworks also doing enzyme engineering, but at lower prices and with different priorities.
Occasionally, the company can get a bargain to get some intellectual property or product, but that’s not really the business model, Sahelian said. Some early work was actually getting the final connection, but ultimately the core product is expected to be the service. (Nevertheless, an order worth millions is nothing to be despised.)
It may have occurred to you that allozyme can search hundreds of millions of enzymes in one job. Rest assured, you are aware of the value these can represent. The service transitions seamlessly into the inevitable data game.
“If you have a large data set that says, ‘if you change that amino acid, that will be the function,’ you don’t even have to develop it, you can eliminate it [i.e. from consideration]. You can even develop enzymes if you know enough, ”Salehian said.
The company’s most recent $ 5 million seed round was led by SOSV and Temasek, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. Salehian stated that due to interest from American venture firms, they were planning to set up in the US, but Temasek’s early-stage investor convinced them to stay.
“Biotransformation is in great demand on this side of the world,” said Salehian. “Chemical, agri and food companies have to do this, but no platform company can provide these services. So we tried to fill this gap. “