2021 in Review: A Challenging and Inspiring Year
Written by Jürgen Eckhardt, Head of Leaps by Bayer
As 2021 draws to a close, I want to reflect on a year filled with challenges, inspiration — and ultimately, hope. This year began with a world in crisis, with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing daily life to a halt and the escalating effects of climate change becoming increasingly clear and urgent.
Despite these daunting challenges, 2021 has also brought inspiring scientific innovations and glimmers of hope. Vaccines have started turning the tide of the pandemic, and this November’s COP26 climate summit has produced a new international agreement aimed at protecting our planet. These challenges are still with us as we enter 2022, but I hope that 2021 goes down in history as a turning point in which global collaboration and breakthrough innovation start to solve some of the world’s biggest crises.
At Leaps, we’ve drawn inspiration from the tremendous scientific innovations of the past year as we seek the next generation of breakthrough technologies. In 2021, we invested in over 14 companies that are tackling major challenges in health and agriculture, bringing our portfolio to over 50 companies. In total, we have invested more than 1.5 billion USD towards achieving our 10 Leaps, grand challenges with immense potential to improve our collective future.
This year has been marked by milestone developments in new therapies that could revolutionize medicine. mRNA vaccines have deservedly been the major story of the year, and cell and gene therapies currently in clinical trials have shown promise in curing devastating diseases, ranging from rare blood disorders to Type 1 diabetes. Meanwhile, AI has enabled us to make huge strides forward on the fundamental problem of protein structure prediction, paving the way for more targeted protein engineering. These advances show that the Bio Revolution is moving rapidly from prediction to reality, with enormous potential to improve human health and beyond.
Health for All…
Our new investments in 2021 showcase a range of bold new approaches to building platform technologies that may one day prevent and cure diseases. One major area of investment has been in tackling Leap 06 / Reverse autoimmune diseases and chronic inflammation. Autoimmune disorders are estimated to impact 5–8% of the population, and companies like Mozart Therapeutics and Deka BioSciences are developing immune modulators to reverse these devastating diseases. New investment GRObio is taking a different, complementary approach, applying pioneering approaches to protein engineering to fulfill the promise of protein therapies. Yet another investment, Edifice Health, is combining proteomics analysis with AI to measure and prevent chronic inflammation, another example of our commitment to tackling autoimmune diseases.
Meanwhile, the digital revolution is also transforming medicine. To push forward the breakthrough potential of cell and gene technologies, Senti Biosciences is bringing paradigm-shifting approaches from synthetic biology to reprogram cells like computers, allowing them to sense biological inputs, compute decisions, and respond in ways that enhance health. AI and big data are opening new avenues for detecting and treating diseases, and our recent investment in Ada Health expands our list of portfolio companies dedicated to transforming patient care. With more than 10 million users worldwide, Ada’s app allows patients to complete initial digital assessments at home, augmenting traditional medical care and expanding healthcare access for people who need it most. Last but not least, our final health investment this year is in Bloom Science, a company exploring the gut-brain-immune axis with the aim of developing living medicines to address diseases like ALS and refractory epilepsy.
…and Hunger for None.
The past year has also seen a redoubling of our commitment to developing breakthrough technologies that can change the game in our existential fight against climate change. Agriculture is a major significant source of global carbon emissions, and developing sustainable, high-yield crop technologies is essential for ensuring a healthy population and a healthy planet. I am excited by the varied, creative approaches that our new portfolio companies are taking to tackle this grand challenge. Fork & Goode is our first investment into cultured meat, which could reduce our reliance on carbon-intensive livestock. Amfora is using the same gene-editing techniques that have revolutionized medicine to engineer high-protein soybeans, enhancing the sustainability of this crucial crop, and Ukko is building a protein-engineering platform to create nutritious plant proteins that don’t trigger food allergies. All of these approaches have immense potential to improve food security while also ensuring a more habitable future.
Other new investments are taking bold new approaches to enhance agricultural efficiency. Portfolio companies Guardian Agriculture and EarthOptics are enabling more targeted application of farming practices, from fertilizer application to tillage. Sound Agriculture and Andes are teaming up with soil microbes to reduce reliance on traditional, carbon-intensive nitrogen fertilizers. Altogether, these companies represent a diverse set of approaches to transforming agriculture and building a more sustainable future.
A Year of Milestones
As our new investments chart a promising path for the future, our earlier investments have also begun to bear fruit. This year brought crucial milestones for two companies pushing the frontiers of cell and gene therapies as Triumvira Immunologics and BlueRock Therapeutics dosed their first patients in Phase 1 trials of novel therapeutics. Three investments, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, Pyxis, and Century Therapeutics, had successful initial public offerings, showing that investors are also recognizing the potential of these promising technologies. These successes are a testament to the growing promise of the Bio Revolution to address some of humanity’s most daunting challenges.
As we look forward to 2022, I see a world filled with major challenges, but also with tremendous hope. This past year has been a testament to the power of scientific innovation and global collaboration to move the needle on pressing, complex problems. To realize our vision of Health for All, Hunger for None, we’ll need to continue accelerating the pace of innovation while building trust and understanding of these transformative technologies. Together, we can build a better future.