Benchling wants to become the Salesforce of biotech
Benchling, a nearly three-year-old startup, is transforming the biotech industry. But it isn’t working in cells and DNA. It’s instead working in bits and bytes to create a series of cloud-based tools for researchers that can accelerate research and development by tracking details about experiments, helping collaboration between researchers and streamlining data analysis.
The San Francisco-based startup is entering a new phase of expansion after raising $5 million in new financing led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from Thrive Capital, Benchling said Wednesday. The company plans to use the funds to expand the company’s commercial operations, including building up its software engineering and global support teams.
Benchling, which recently introduced its Benchling Research Platform that unites its existing suite of applications in one place, aims to create a unified place where researchers can log, store and analyze the data from various experiments. It operates like a system of record where the entire scope of a research project is executed within a single eco-system–allowing an organization to have all its institutional knowledge at its fingertips. Benchling is essentially aiming to be a biotech version of the Salesforce (CRM), the cloud-computing company known for a service used widely by corporate sales teams.
“Salesforce has this rich ecosystem and ends up being where you do all your work, we envision something similar,” CEO and founder Sajith Wickramasekara told Fortune. “Research has a distinctly physical component. Our vision is to create that bridge to the physical world within a single platform.”
Biotech research has become increasingly distributed across different offices, labs, and institutions, and few institutions have a unified platform. Big biotech companies often have their own systems to use internally–allowing their researchers to share data and notes across projects and offices. Academic institutions and smaller labs haven’t had the resources to invest in those IT-heavy projects, though can use offerings like Amazon Web Services to collate and share data in a similar way.
Scientists sometimes work across five to six different tools, from an excel document to Evernote to other proprietary software programs for molecular biology research. Not only that, much of the tracking software out there today was designed for chemistry research (i.e. for the types of drugs made from chemical molecules, like aspirin or Viagra). Biotech research is different. It requires DNA analysis and imaging of living cells. Benchling has designed its platform for those specific needs.
“We spend billions of dollars on biomedical research annually–it’s literally a matter of life and death,” said Balaji Srinivasa, board partner at Andreessen Horowitz. “Yet, we don’t spend anywhere near as much effort on making the results of that research reproducible, searchable and machine-readable.”
Benchling changes that equation by offering a suite of tools, centered around its digital laboratory notebook–essentially a digitized and connected version of the physical object researchers already use. It has apps for designing DNA, annotating gel images and creating interactive protocols (or the recipe) for a research project–the basics needed for a successful biotech discovery.
Wickramasekara, in partnership with Ashu Singhal, started the company in May 2012 during his junior year in college. He had planned to get his Ph.D and work in biotech, not actual tech. But he quickly became frustrated with the dated methods of logging and tracking information.
“As someone who had been programming most of my life, I became frustrated with science,” Wickramasekara said. “The industry runs on Excel spreadsheets and data silos that don’t connect, and I wanted to bring better ease of use to this space.”
While Wickramasekara’s vision for how research should be conducted will take years to realize, Benchling has already made in-roads in the industry. Currently more than 6,000 scientists across 1,000 research institutions use Benchling for their work, doing things like creating biofuels, developing vaccines, and researching antibodies. They have an especially strong presence at MIT, Stanford and Harvard, Wickramasekara said.
The company’s next step, using the latest round of funding, is to scale up to work more with industry heavyweights, adding to the 20 corporate clients with which it currently works. In addition to Andreessen Horowitz and Thrive Capital, Benchling’s investors include Y Combinator, Rock Health, FF Angel, SV Angel, Tim Draper, Geoff Ralson, Kevin Mahaffey and Matt Huang.