Stämm Biotech raises $17 million to fund the development of its next-generation 3D printed bioreactor

There has been a lot of buzz in the last year about biomanufacturing — from growing cell-based meat to manufacturing medicines using microbes. However, none of synthetic biology’s darlings would be possible without a critical piece of equipment: a bioreactor. While the world debates the best strategy for establishing biology-fueled manufacturing, one company is already rethinking its most critical instrument.

Stämm Biotech, founded in 2014, is developing a desktop-sized bioreactor with a design that departs significantly from the tanks, tubes, and knobs found in industrial or even benchtop bioreactors. The Buenos Aires-based company recently announced a $17 million Series A round, bringing its total funding to $20 million when combined with previous seed and pre-seed rounds.

To understand what Stämm is doing, it’s necessary to understand what a bioreactor looks like and what happens inside. At their most fundamental level, industrial scale bioreactors are colossal, sterilised tanks. These tanks are filled with the medium necessary to grow a particular type of cell or microorganism, which may either produce or be the desired product.

These cell cultures are stirred by a motorised instrument, kept at the proper temperature with coolants, and given the appropriate amount of oxygen (or lack thereof) to support their growth. Additionally, you can perform this procedure in a single-use bag rather than a tank, which reduces the time required to re-sterilize a tank before growing something else.

Stämm has essentially eliminated the tank, stirring, and tubes from the equation. Rather than that, it is developing a unit that 3D prints a dense network of microchannels that transport cells’ nutrients and oxygen. The movement itself serves as the stirrer.

This is an illustration of a 3D printed fluid channel piece. The addition of cells, oxygen, and nutrients can occur in a variety of locations.

Stämm’s software component is used to design these channels. Consider the entire process as a “cloud-based CDMO [contract development and manufacturing organisation],” as Yuyo Llamazares, co-founder and CEO of Stamm, explained to TechCrunch.

“We identified a disconnect between the desire to develop a biological product and the capabilities of commercially available tools. This motivated us to take ownership of the issue,” he explained.

There has already been considerable interest in biomanufacturing, with the belief that growing things in cells is the next wave of manufacturing, from biopharmaceuticals to chemicals, textiles, fragrances, and even whole cuts of meat.

For example, Ginkgo Bioworks, which raised $15 billion in its initial public offering, is one company that is particularly bullish on both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical applications of biomanufacturing. However, evidence of such game-changing manufacturing has slowly trickled in. (And, at the time of publication, Ginkgo’s market capitalization was closer to $7.24 billion.)

Without bioreactors, none of the promise of biomanufacturing can be realised. Stämm’s strategy is to reduce the size of the reactor using microfluidics.

A computer-generated illustration of the flow of fluid through one of the printed pieces.

At the moment, the company claims to be able to significantly reduce the size of a biomanufacturing facility. However, it operates on a smaller scale than the majority of large bioreactors. Stämm’s bioreactors have a capacity of approximately 30 litres, rather than the thousands typically seen at industrial scale. (However, the company claims that its core concept can scale up to approximately 5,000 litres).

Despite the technology’s potential, Stämm is only in the early stages of commercialization. It is currently collaborating with one European biopharmaceutical company focused on biosimilars and claims to have five additional potential partners in the pipeline. In 2022, the company intends to expand to “pilot scale.”

At the moment, new partnerships are the primary metric of success for Stämm, according to Llamazares. “We want to interact directly with as many partners as possible to gain a better understanding of how the product we’ve developed can be improved,” he explained.

If one delves a little deeper into the business side of things, it becomes clear that Stämm is still ironing out some wrinkles. When I inquired about the cost of one of the units, Llamazares refused to provide a dollar figure. Stämm is attempting to acclimate clients to working with microfluidic bioreactors rather than traditional machines, he explained. Until then, the prices of machines and services are not fixed.

“At this stage, we are examining diverse business models and client interactions,” he explained.

Stämm intends to double its headcount to around 200 in this round and to expand its international presence. Additionally, the company will refine and develop its microfluidic bioreactors and associated tools.

Varana, Vista, New Abundance, Trillian, Serenity Traders, Teramips, and the Decarbonization Consortium are among the new investors in the round. They join existing investors Draper Associates, SOSV, Grid Exponential, VistaEnergy, Teramips, Cygnus Draper, and Dragones VC.

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