The UK company Ori Biotech has raised €88M ($100M) in Series B cash to ease the cell therapy manufacturing bottleneck using automation and standardized data collection.
The round was 40% oversubscribed and led by the US investment firm Novalis LifeSciences. The Chinese investor Puhua Capital and Chimera Abu Dhabi joined the existing syndicate, which includes Amadeus Capital Partners, Delin Ventures, and more.
The proceeds will fuel Ori Biotech’s recruiting drive as the firm prepares for the commercialization of its cell therapy manufacturing technology. Ori expects to hit the market in the first half of 2023.
“There’s a lot of stuff to do: getting manufacturing and supply chains, beefing up our commercial team,” said Jason Foster, Ori Biotech’s CEO. “We already have six or seven folks in our commercial team but we want more.”
“The excitement for this year is to deploy some of that capital into building robust infrastructure into the company.”
Record levels of venture funding have swelled the cell and gene therapy sectors in the last two years. However, these complex therapies remain tough and costly to manufacture because the process needs enormous facilities and high levels of manual labor. Additionally, the culture of fragile human cells typically results in variable yields.
“These are highly manual processes where you have highly skilled operators tying together different operations: tube welding, going under the hood, and micropipetting manual samples,” said Foster. “It makes it very difficult to scale these processes because there’s so much human intervention required.”
Ori Biotech aims to produce automated ‘mini factories’ that cut the space and personnel requirements in the cell therapy manufacturing process by up to 90%. The technology blends engineering and biological know-how with a data collection system to monitor the process in a standardized way.
“I think right now, unfortunately, a lot of the industry is operating in the analog world, such as with paper batch records and lab notebooks,” said Foster. “We’re helping the industry evolve into a truly digital-first approach leading to paperless manufacturing, which will allow us to scale that much more efficiently and to reduce costs even further.”
Another challenge slowing the growth of cell and gene therapy manufacturing is a lack of skilled staff. A number of cell therapy firms including Orgenesis in the US are investing in automation to work around the problem.
“We’ve got PhD immunologists that are very highly skilled and hard to find; there are just not enough of them out there,” noted Foster. “I’m not sure we’re optimizing their skill sets. If we’re able to automate some of those processes that require lower skill levels, we can allow those highly skilled people to do their trade.”
Many biotech companies are working to make cell therapy production cheaper and faster. The UK-based bit.bio is one of several working on cell reprogramming, a method for efficiently converting stem cells into a desired cell type. TreeFrog Therapeutics in France raised a €64M Series B round in September 2021 to fund technology boosting cell therapy yield by coating fragile cells in a protective shell.
No single company can solve the cell therapy manufacturing puzzle, said Foster; each innovation will likely have a big impact on a different part of the production line. The innovations in play could also lead to an era where small research centers and companies can compete with the large centralized manufacturing facilities available to big pharma companies.
Some of the most exciting trends in cell and gene therapy manufacturing include the growth of digital tools for data collection in addition to firms working on ways to genetically engineer cells without the costly process of using viral vectors.
“[Viral production] is a very expensive part of the process,” said Foster. “So if we’re able to look at other mechanisms to do the genetic transfer, which are compatible with Ori … then that could be a great step forward for the industry.”
Cover image via Elena Resko