Atlas, NEA bankroll a $30M round for synthetic biology upstart Synlogic

Seven years ago, when Timothy Lu was a doctoral student, he attracted headlines for his work in synthetic biology, stitching an enzyme-producing gene into the genome of a virus and building a new antibiotic with the technology at his disposal. Today, the MIT scientist has joined hands with another top investigator in the field--Boston University's Jim Collins, a Howard Hughes investigator who ran the lab where Lu did his doctoral work--to provide the scientific foundation for a new biotech that plans to build a pipeline of therapies with the synthetic biology tech Lu and Collins specialize in.

Ankit Mahadevia, Atlas Venture partner and Spero Therapeutics acting president

This morning Atlas Venture and New Enterprise Associates announced that they have committed $29.4 million to launch Synlogic, a new Cambridge, MA-based upstart initially seeded last fall that has set out to build a platform that can create therapeutic microbes.

"We've been talking to Jim for a long time," says Dr. Ankit Mahadevia, a venture partner at Atlas Venture and co-founder of Synlogic, which is building on a decade's work in the lab and some 14 current or pending patents in the field. Collins has been an adviser on Spero Therapeutics, an antibiotics company Mahadevia and Atlas launched recently with an early pact with Roche ($RHHBY). But the scientist pulled Mahadevia aside to talk about synthetic biology last year.

Says the VC investor: "He really dazzled us with the power of the portfolio that he has."

So what's the killer application? He's not saying for now. That comes later. But "the general idea behind this is a microbe can have a therapeutic function. What's exciting about this is the refinement of this platform; the 'tunability' of the platform is the revolutionary aspect. You can heat a room with an open flame or use a furnace to get a measured effect. And you can tune a therapeutic response. An engineered microbe doesn't have to be always on."

Body temperature or surface markers, as examples, can be used to turn them on in specific parts of the body. So disease-causing metabolites that cause disease can be zapped in the GI system, or microbes can be used to secrete a vitamin or a nutrient or a therapeutic--say, for example, an anti-inflammatory.

In the next few months the company will assemble its long-term executive team and a core group of a dozen staffers at offices in Kendall Square. And Mahadevia says the company plans to take a couple of programs into the clinic in a couple of years as the biotech explores some potential early-stage industry partnerships.

"Bacteria have been shown to be an ideal vector for the production and delivery of drugs for many diseases--many bacteria already exist in a commensal or even mutualistic relationship with the human body, they already contain compounds and metabolic pathways that can release or produce drugs and a large proportion of diseases are bacterial," said Collins in a statement. "Our goal is simple--use the amazing potential of synthetic biology to play a critical role in the development of therapies that lead to improved clinical outcomes for patients."

Peter Barrett, partner at Atlas Venture, Ed Mathers, partner at NEA, and Mahadevia will serve on the Synlogic board of directors.

The synthetic biology field covers a host of disciplines outside drug development, including biofuel development. And with money pouring into R&D for new products, Allied Marketing Research concluded that the whole nascent field could be worth $38.7 billion by 2020.