Venture-capital interest in the microbiome—the collection of microbes that inhabit humans, animals and plants—is growing like a culture in a petri dish.
More than 100 trillion microorganisms make up the microbiome, living in and on the human body, and performing vital functions: They synthesize vitamins, aid digestion and help the immune system develop.
apitalizing on new understanding of how imbalances in this ecosystem contribute to disease, a handful of startups aim to give physicians better weapons to fight conditions such as cancer, autoimmune disorders and infection.
Vedanta Biosciences Inc., for one, is teaming up with NYU Langone Medical Center researchers to study ways to enlist bacteria in the battle against tumors. Other startups bring microbiome science to consumers. Human Longevity Inc., which raised $220 million in venture financing earlier this year, sequences microbiome DNA for individual clients to uncover disease-associated imbalances in microbial populations.
Still others apply microbiome research to agriculture, using microbes from plants to make crops more resistant to drought and other threats. Recently Indigo Agriculture Inc., based in Charlestown, Mass., a startup whose goal is to enable cotton and other crops to use water more efficiently, closed a $100 million funding round.
Venture-capital investment in microbiome companies has grown at a faster rate than overall venture-capital funding. From 2011 through 2015, venture funding in microbiome firms soared 458.5% to $114.5 million, while overall venture investment grew 103.4% to $75.29 billion. This year, microbiome investment has surged again despite a decline in overall venture funding. The $616.9 million raised for microbiome companies to date so far in 2016 is more than all of the venture investment in the microbiome space in 2011 through 2015 combined.
Despite the promise of using microbiome science to improve health, efforts to develop microbiome-based therapies remain in their early stages. One closely watched microbiome company, Seres TherapeuticsInc., suffered a setback in July when it saw disappointing interim results from a clinical study of a treatment for recurrent Clostridium difficile infections, which cause diarrhea and other symptoms. Seres, which went public last year, is also developing microbiome-based treatments for inflammatory-bowel disease and other conditions.