Blog | 08.01.2024

Going ‘cell-free’: key players, innovations – and a technology that could change the world

A simple term makes a lot of difference in this emerging biotech field. Here's what it means – and why it matters.

In the rapidly evolving landscape of biotechnology, a groundbreaking field has emerged that is redefining the way we think about manufacturing and engineering: cell-free technology.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this innovative approach could change everything. Cell-free technology is revolutionizing the production of valuable biomolecules, chemicals and materials by harnessing the power of cellular machinery without the need for living cells. This vibrant innovation space could rapidly increase bio-driven components of industries, speeding the transition away from fossil-fuel dependent processes and decarbonizing manufacturing.

But there are many components in this machine. In this blog, we’ll explore the fascinating world of cell-free technology—and introduce you to some of the key players and startups driving this change.

Protein engineers: crafting molecules for the future

At the forefront of cell-free technology are protein engineers, who manipulate and design proteins to perform specific functions. These engineered proteins can act as enzymes, catalysts, or even components of medicines. For instance, startups like Codexis and Arzeda are pioneering the design of custom enzymes that can accelerate chemical reactions or synthesize complex molecules.

Their business model often revolves around designing these proteins as a service and then licensing the IP to industry partners in fields such as pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and biofuels.

Biodiversity and genome databases: unlocking nature's treasure trove

Biodiversity is a wellspring of biological information — and potential applications in our own industries to develop. Startups like BioGenBank, GenoVault and Basecamp are amassing vast databases of genetic information from diverse organisms. These databases serve as invaluable resources for researchers and companies seeking innovative protein encoding genes and metabolic pathways for cell-free production. Their business model often involves licensing access to specific genetic sequences or providing data-driven insights to guide the aforementioned protein engineering efforts.

Strain engineers: microbial factories precision-fermenting proteins

Strain engineers, often referred to as enzyme manufacturers, focus on optimizing and customizing microbial strains genetically engineered to produce specific recombinant protein. Ginkgo Bioworks and Novozymes are examples in this category. Their revenue streams typically come from licensing their strains to a company looking to make specific recombinant protein — and often producing said protein for the company using their strain and scale-up experience.

Process engineering: fine-tuning efficiency and yield

Just as a chef perfects a recipe, process engineers refine the methods and conditions for cell-free reactions within industrial systems to achieve maximum efficiency and yield. These startups, like ReactorX, SynthFlow Dynamics, and Enzymicals develop advanced reactors, bioreactors, and optimization algorithms to fine-tune the production process. Their business model revolves around selling equipment, software, or providing consulting services to improve the overall performance of cell-free systems.

Vertically integrated chemical manufacturers: one-stop shops for sustainable chemistry

Some startups take a comprehensive approach by integrating multiple steps of the production process into their business model. These ‘vertically-integrated’ chemical manufacturers, such as Rubi Laboratories, Solugen, and Debut Biotech, engineer cell-free systems that can also produce specific in-demand specialty chemicals. They sell the sustainable chemical products directly to customers to replace traditional chemical production methods reliant on more fossil fuel-hungry processes.

Horizontal tool providers: empowering essential innovation

Just as any gold rush leads to a demand for tools, the cell-free technology landscape has spawned a need for essential technologies – the tools of this new frontier.

Horizontal tool providers, exemplified by TWIST Bioscience, offer crucial resources like DNA synthesis and assembly services. They provide the ’picks and shovels‘ for the biotechnology pioneers, enabling them to engineer genes and pathways more efficiently.

In conclusion, the field of cell-free technology is a dynamic and transformative front in biotechnology, offering endless possibilities for sustainable manufacturing, medical breakthroughs, and environmental solutions. As we’ve explored, various components –  from protein engineers to horizontal tool providers – are shaping the landscape and driving innovation forward. With each passing day, these startups are inching us closer to a future where the building blocks of life can be harnessed and engineered to meet the needs of our ever-evolving material world.


Grant Aarons

CEO, Founder

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