Health/Life Sciences

The ‘golden age’ for analysis instruments: Parse Biosciences raises $41.5M for single-cell tech

Parse Biosciences CTO Charles Roco and CEO Alex Rosenberg. (Parse Photo)

Alex Rosenberg was a postdoc at the University of Washington when he co-founded a new biotech startup in 2018 and took the helm as CEO. The company is growing fast: Parse Biosciences launched its first products last year and on Tuesday announced $41.5 million in new funding.

The Seattle-based company is an entry in the nascent field of single-cell RNA sequencing, where multiple methods have been developed and companies are jostling for long-term dominance.

“People have seen how valuable research tools are, in terms of advancing science, medicine and drug discovery,” Rosenberg said in an interview. “It’s just a really fun, exciting, fast-moving space to be in right now.”

Understanding which RNAs are present in a cell gives scientists a read-out of active genes. That helps distinguish different cell types, for instance in a blood sample or a petri dish of stem cells turning into heart cells. There’s a vast range of research questions the approach can help answer.

Rosenberg and his colleagues discovered a new way to profile RNAs in the lab of UW synthetic biology professor Georg Seelig. The pair co-founded the company, previously called Split Biosciences, with graduate student Charles Roco, who is now CTO.

Parse Biosciences has an edge because it does not rely on specialized equipment or devices, said Rosenberg, unlike market leader 10x Genomics and other companies.

That keeps Parse Biosciences’ kits simple, and easy to use for scaling up to large numbers of cells.

The company sells three kits with accompanying software. The kit with the highest capacity, the Evercode Whole Transcriptome Mega kit, can profile RNAs from 96 samples totaling one million cells, using standard lab equipment. The company now has more than 300 customers, from academic labs to biotech companies.

Parse Biosciences launched its Evercode Whole Transcriptome Kit last October. (Parse Image)

In 2018, the year the technique was published in Science, Rosenberg and his colleagues were overwhelmed.

“We had literally hundreds and hundreds of people reaching out to us, these different researchers across the world. And initially, we were trying to help them get this up and running in their labs,” recalls Rosenberg. “It became pretty obvious quickly that we needed to commercialize this to get it out to as many people as possible.’”

Their first challenge after launching the company was to take a workflow developed in an academic lab and turn it into a product.

Rosenberg recalls visiting early customers with Roco. “We were going on site with people, watching them do the workflow and taking notes, looking at any steps that they were having issues with, really refining it,” he said. That attention to customer feedback has stayed with the startup through its growth, he added.

It’s a good time build a technique-focused platform biotech company, said Rosenberg.

“I think there’s a lot more excitement about research tools and realization about how enabling they are,” he said, pointing to successful companies such as Illumina, PacBio, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, and Seattle’s NanoString Technologies, which also sells products for RNA profiling. “We’re kind of in the golden age of research tools.”

That golden age is propelled in part by the advent of fast and cheap next-generation DNA sequencing technology, which has spawned a variety of techniques built off of it. Parse Biosciences samples are similarly taken through a sequencing step.

Genes are labelled with “bar codes” that can be traced back to the cell of origin. (Parse Image)

The company avoids using special equipment through its unique way of “barcoding” each sequence, a technique to add a molecular “tag” so that each sequence is traceable back to its cell of origin. Other approaches typically first separate the cells from each other using microfluidics devices or other equipment.

Parse Biosciences’ approach does not start with cell separation. Instead it starts by adding a tag to a pool of cells. The cells from different pools are then combined, split into new pools and another tag added. After several rounds, the result is that the sequences from the same cell are labelled with the same barcode. The technique is called “split-pool” barcoding.

The new Series B round, co-led by Marshall Wace and Janus Henderson Investors, brings the company’s total funding to more than $50 million. The startup will be adding new scientific capabilities, for instance a kit specialized for profiling immune cells, and will build out its manufacturing and sales teams.

Rosenberg aims to more than double the size of the 40-person company, located along Seattle’s waterfront, by the end of the year.

Soleus Capital, Logos Capital and Bioeconomy Capital also participated in the new funding round.

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