Each month we profile an innovative, growing company from across The Golden Triangle of Cambridge, London and Oxford. This month we speak to Dr James Field, Founder and CEO at LabGenius, who have developed an autonomous AI-driven evolution engine for the discovery of high-value protein components.

LabGenius combines AI, DNA synthesis and robotics to engineer high-value proteins – what does this mean in reality?

Engineered proteins, for example antibodies & enzymes, provide huge economic and societal value in their ability to both treat disease and power important industrial processes. Despite this, the development of these molecules is largely artisanal and relies heavily on humans for both experimental design and execution. This dependence is often limiting because, as a species, we’re cognitively incapable of fully grasping the complexity of biological systems. As a consequence, the development of novel proteins is often both inefficient and prone to failure.

At LabGenius, we think that the key to improving the protein engineering process is to break through this ‘cognition barrier’. To do this, we’re developing EVA – the world’s first fully autonomous AI-driven evolution engine.

Tell us more about EVA.

EVA is our Silicon Scientist. It’s an agent capable of designing, conducting and critically, learning from its own experiments. The learning aspect means that EVA gets continuously smarter as it unpicks the genetic design rules that underpin life. Ultimately, we think that this approach will give us the ability to engineer proteins with both enhanced and entirely novel functionality.

You raised $3.66m seed funding last year. Tell us more about who was involved with this?

Our seed funding has massively accelerated the team’s work. In a few short months, we’ve been able to build our own state-of-the-art research facility and hire some of the best minds in the field. Given the somewhat unconventional nature of our work and the high degree of customisation required, we ended up building our new facility in a former biscuit factory in Bermondsey.

Our seed round itself was jointly led by Kindred Capital and Acequia Capital with participation from Backed VC, Beast Ventures, Berggruen Holdings Ltd, and System.One. The round also included former head of corporate strategy at Microsoft, Charlie Songhurst and prominent angel investor, Tom McInerney.

It was a record year for investment into spinouts last year, why do you think this is?

From a commercial perspective, a startup can be a fantastically effective vehicle through which dedicated teams of talented individuals can solve problems with which large incumbents have struggled for decades. The market recognises this which, in part, explains the growth in investment. Interestingly, much of this growth has been concentrated in and around cities like London where you find a magic mix of talent, capital and underlying infrastructure, such as co-working spaces and meetups.

What is your main aim for the future?

We’ve spent several years developing a powerful protein engineering capability which we’re now using to address some really high-value challenges. Through our industrial partnership, our aim for the future is to translate these novel engineered proteins products to market and in doing so, responsibly create both economic and societal value.

LabGenius seems to be doing something different – do you worry about competitors?

Protein engineering is a high-value sport and so, unsurprisingly, we’re competing against some extremely well-funded companies. This said, I am confident that in this game, smarts will win out over brute force. Ultimately, I believe that LabGenius has got the right team and technology to make a major impact in this space.

What is your advice for other start-ups?

The best advice that I can give to aspiring entrepreneurs is to dream big! I started LabGenius as a PhD student and at the time, my scientific and commercial ambitions were constrained by a perceived lack of resources. In retrospect, this was a big mistake. Over the years, I’ve realised that even if a venture is ridiculously ambitious, if you’re working on a meaningful problem with the right team, you have a good chance of finding the resources you need.

Why did you decide to set up in London?

I’m often asked why we went to the effort of building our Central London facility from scratch rather than renting bench space in a biotech incubator. For me, the decision was simple. To build a narrow AI for protein engineering, you need two things. Firstly, you have to recruit an insanely talented and multidisciplinary team of synthetic biologists, automation engineers, software engineers, data engineers and data scientists. Secondly, you have to create an environment in which your team can work together in a fully integrated fashion. For LabGenius, establishing our own purpose-built facility in Central London has enabled us to both recruit exceptional talent and provide a working environment that’s conducive to solving highly multidisciplinary challenges.

Which other companies working in AI excite you?

It’s certainly an exciting time for the field. I’m a huge fan of Zymergen and Recursion Pharmaceuticals both of whom have pioneered the application of machine learning within the biological domain. Here in London, I’m a huge fan of the research going on at Deepmind.

 Find out more at https://www.labgeni.us/