Organ-on-a-chip startup, Emulate, grabs $45M to shake up drug discovery

Who will come up with the killer app for drug discovery, the thing that will make finding new medicines faster, cheaper, and less risky? No one has come close to figuring that out, but a group of venture investors are putting $45 million into a Harvard University spinout with organ-on-a-chip technology that it plans to roll out commercially next year.

Boston-based Emulate is announcing today it has tacked on another $17 million in venture financing, bringing its total Series B venture round to $45 million. The company, founded with a $12 million investment in July 2014, originally spun out of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

The investor group includes Hansjörg Wyss, NanoDimension, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, OS Fund, Atel Ventures, ALS Finding a Cure, and Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings. Covance, a unit of LabCorp that runs many preclinical tests of experimental drugs under contracts with major drug companies, also said it is working to incorporate the Emulate technology in its range of services. The Covance deal, at first, will use an Emulate chip that’s supposed to simulate a human kidney for drug testing.

The big idea is that “organs-on-a-chip” may someday provide a more reasonable lab simulator for drugmakers seeking to understand how their drug candidates work, and whether they’re safe, before they go into human clinical trials. Proponents in academic labs, and in a few small companies pushing the edge like Emulate, hope to develop microfluidic chips that better simulate the complex interplay among cells in live organisms, as well as the real-life biomechanical forces (like breathing in and out) that aren’t captured in the average petri dish, or animal test. The long-term payoff, organ-on-a-chip researchers hope, is a world where drug discovery is more predictable, unsafe drug candidates are weeded out earlier in the process. Eventually, drugmakers and regulators like the FDA may be able reduce the need for certain kinds of animal testing.
A few companies and academic labs are kicking the tires. Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Seres Therapeutics, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation have tested some of the early Emulate offerings. Next year, Emulate wants to cast a wider net and roll out its proprietary system with commercial customers. The company currently has 60 employees and plans to double in size over the coming year.