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24 November, 2017 - 13:38 By Tony Quested

Cambridge Postdocs win $250k Valley cash to create first personal bio-computer

A team of former Cambridge Postdoc researchers have founded a biotechnology company, Cell-Free Technology, with the goal of building the first personal bio-computer.

The team hacked cells and extracted the billion year old processor, the tiny nano machinery, that is responsible for reading DNA and writing proteins, enzymes hormones and medicines. 

It is one of the few techniques available that can use DNA programs but is still completely safe and non-GMO. While games consoles use code, or electronic signals, to program, the team at cell-free use DNA just like a cartridge that allows you to plug-and-play. 

The eclectic team of four feature a designer, biochemist, physicist and a robotics engineer. Their dream has managed a few converts already and they have already raised $250K from Sean O’Sullivan Ventures (SOSV). Since then have been working tirelessly to get their first product ready for market.

Their story started in Cambridge, while CEO Dr Thomas Meany was researching quantum enhanced sensors in the Cavendish Laboratory as a Marie Curie Fellow. 

Thomas describes how biotechnology changed his life: “While in the Toshiba Cambridge Research Labs I worked in the healthcare division and we started learning about synthetic biology.

“Biology suddenly transformed into a computer science! So I left that job and started work in a Plant Science Department on a Wellcome Trust Interdisciplinary Fellowship!”

Chief creative officer Helene Steiner, formerly a postdoc researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge and Royal College of Art, explains: “Our challenge is integrating smart devices seamlessly with our lifestyles. The bio-computer we are developing is not stuck in the test tube but can be embedded in wearables and even smart textiles.”

The technology the team have created is cheap, easy to use and, most importantly, non-GMO. The team break open cells and remove the replication machineries, like the cell wall, so that all that is left is a biochemical soup containing bio-processors whose only job is to read DNA and make things. 

The vision is much more ambitious, however. Their goal is to build the personal bio-computer which, unlike conventional electronic wearables, truly interacts with our bodies, speaking the natural languages of hormones and pheromones.

Whether for medical or lifestyle reasons people want to interact with their environments in sophisticated ways. The smart devices of today can only make relatively crude measurements since they are simply not speaking the natural language of cells.

Cell-Free is not a new topic, in fact it has been popular in research labs since the 50s. But it took the team a long time to finally figure out how to break open cells, without damaging the inner workings, at scale.

CSO Ian McDermott, a protein engineer trained in the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, describes his achievement: “It was a real eureka moment when we finally cracked it. The same thing farmers hate in their milk, bacteriophage infection, is the magic ingredient that makes our cells break open like Christmas crackers!”

The team’s first product “Bixels” is available on kickstarter and through their webpage: bixels.io

Prior to founding Cell-Free Technology  the team  – Dr Thomas Meany (CEO), Helene Steiner (CCO), Ian McDermott (CSO) and Brian Manning (CTO)  between them had 40 years of cross-disciplinary R & D experience and worked in MIT, the Royal College of Art, University of Cambridge, Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, University of Sydney, National University of Ireland, Tyndall Institute, Ecole Polytechnique, Toshiba, Microsoft, Gencell and Vaccinogen. 

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Thomas Meany

Kiss Communications

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