3 Automation Companies Manufacturing Cell Therapies

The great American philosopher, Robin Williams, once said that reality is just a crutch for people who can’t face drugs. And he certainly came from a country where that rings true. America consumes huge quantities of drugs like no other. Does something hurt? Here, have some opioids. Does your high school teacher bore you to tears? Here, have some methamphetamines Adderall. They even have a drug for “restless leg syndrome,” which is what happens when you take too much Adderall.

In the future, drugs will be tailored to your individual genetic profile. Mass customization in pharmaceuticals and whole genome sequencing will lead to a personalized pill for every popper. Today, we’re going to talk about how robotics and automation can help manufacture everything from pills to cell therapies.

Robotics in Drug Manufacturing

We first started out calling these companies “robotics companies,” but that seemed to undersell the value proposition. That’s because robotics technology is just one component of a full-stack automation platform that does a whole lot more than just move things around.

Robotics in pharma isn’t anything new. The majority of drug manufacturers already use robots for packaging. Any large pharmaceutical manufacturer also has warehouses to store all their drugs, and there are plenty of warehouse robotics solutions on offer that are industry agnostic. What we want to explore is the use of automation for creating the actual therapeutics using sophisticated workflows that are as much about the software as the hardware. It entails much more than just buying a few cobots from Teradyne and teaching them how to move vials around. One company dabbling in the drug manufacturing automation space is Multiply Labs.

About Multiply Labs

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Founded in 2016, San Francisco’s own Multiply Labs has taken in $22 million in funding to develop a platform that automates the production of precision therapeutics. The end result sounds like what you’d get if a 3D printed drug company had an illegitimate love child with a laboratory in the cloud.

Personalized Pills

The original idea behind 3D printing pills was that you could create them using any combination of components one could dream of. It almost seemed like a solution looking for a problem, because you could simply just create an automated system that filled capsules using custom amounts and ingredients. You don’t need 3D printing to do that, and it’s where Multiply Labs started out.

The company’s initial use case involves advanced robotics technology encapsulated in a miniature automated factory that receives digital prescription orders and fills them based on each patient’s unique needs. These manufacturing cells occupy a footprint of just 15 square feet.

Credit: Multiply Labs

Multiply Labs deemed this “the first demonstration of fully autonomous, lights-out manufacturing in the pharmaceutical space,” with a focus on customization, scale, and safety. Since then, the company has also pivoted into a manufacturing use case that much more resembles the sort of work performed in a laboratory.

Manufacturing Cell Therapies

Multiply Labs took it a step further and looked at manufacturing cell therapies that today require a fairly sophisticated manual process. Here’s one example of how sophisticated the process can be from MIT News:

CAR-T cell therapy, for example, requires scientists to extract blood from a patient, isolate immune cells, genetically engineer those cells, grow the new cells, and inject them back into the patient. In many cases, each of those steps must be repeated for each patient.

Credit: MIT News

The same article talks about the value add of an automated process that can do multiple tasks simultaneously, increasing output and the speed at which therapies can be produced. Multiply Labs is currently working with a subsidiary of Dannaher (DHR), Cytiva, to leverage their industry knowledge and resources to move closer towards commercialization. But they’re not the only ones tackling the cell therapy manufacturing problem. Across the pond, another startup is working on much the same thing.

About Ori Biotech

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Founded in 2015, London’s own Ori Biotech has taken in just over $39 million in funding to build a platform that will improve quality and decrease costs in Cell and Gene Therapy (CGT) manufacturing. They’ve been shoring up their leadership team lately and partnering with a number of companies like Hitachi and Venti. The latter is a cloud-based platform for accessing cell and gene therapies that was originally conceived by General Electric and the Mayo Clinic, currently serving hundreds of leading medical centers and manufacturing centers worldwide. This will pave the way for a full-stack offering that helps deliver therapies to patients seamlessly while the robots work behind the scenes making it all happen.

About Cellares

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Last but not least is San Francisco startup Cellares which has taken in $100 million in disclosed funding so far with $82 million of that coming in the form of a Series B last May. Just weeks ago, Cellares added Poseida Therapeutics (PSTX) to its early access partnership program for the company’s Cell Shuttle, a highly specialized “factory in a box” solution for developing cell therapies.

The Cell Shuttle – Credit: Cellares

What you see above is true walk-away end-to-end automation in a closed system that results in a 70% cost reduction and three-fold reduction in process failure rates. Over 85% of cell therapies are supported including autologous (your cells are used) and allogeneic (someone else’s cells are used). Cellares claims their platform can accelerate market entry for pharma companies by 1-2 years.

Your Sacred Cow Goes Here

With over 1,000 cell-based and cell therapy clinical trials ongoing worldwide, there’s plenty of room for more than one robotic solution that manufactures cell therapies. The three companies we’ve talked about today are hardly the only ones dabbling in this space, and this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of every company out there. If we “missed” your sacred cow, don’t panic. Just drop us an email and one of our underpaid MBAs will try to sell you our content marketing solution for startups. Or just leave a cheeky comment in the comments section like everyone else does.

Conclusion

Using the latest robotics technologies and machine learning algorithms to automate a manufacturing process isn’t novel. There’s nothing stopping any drug manufacturer from doing the heavy lifting themselves. That’s why it’s important for these companies to partner with larger industry stakeholders and quickly capture ground while big pharma companies are making their build-vs-buy decisions. And that’s precisely what seems to be happening.

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