Looking Back on 2022: A Year of Milestones Amid Challenging Times
As we embark on a new year, I am grateful for a year of scientific progress in challenging global economic times. Last year at this time, the COVID-19 pandemic exploded with the unexpected arrival of the Omicron variant. Even as the incredible breakthrough of mRNA vaccines have helped society reach a new normal, we are still dealing with the pandemic’s effects, and the turbulent economy unquestionably made last year a difficult one for biotech investors. In addition, the geopolitical upheavals caused by the war in Ukraine and rising inflation have threatened the global food supply and increased the health burden around the world.
But the remarkable scientific advances of the past year have reinforced my belief in the power of biotechnology to help solve many of our most daunting problems. The Covid vaccines, for example, have hastened innovation in important technologies like lipid nanoparticles for non-infectious diseases and mRNA for cancer and other diseases. Several of our portfolio companies are advancing these areas, which I will detail further below.
On the ag side, an exciting front is the development of nitrogen fixation capabilities in crops that don’t have it already, like corn and cereal. This area is especially urgent not only to help reduce reliance on nitrogen fertilizer for environmental reasons, but also to make growing food more economical for farmers and consumers in the wake of soaring fertilizer prices due to the Ukraine war. Bayer’s partnership with Gingko BioWorks to develop and scale such emerging technologies is proof of our commitment to usher in a new era of more sustainable agriculture so we can keep up with the needs of our growing population while preserving the health of the planet. Leaps also proudly participated in a Series D round for our portfolio company Sound Agriculture, which is working to scale its flagship product that activates the soil microbiome to support crop growth without requiring as much synthetic fertilizer.
It has been rewarding for me to see our Leaps portfolio grow and flourish in 2022, and I am hopeful that our new investments will bring us closer to achieving our 10 Leaps, motivated by Bayer’s a vision of Health for All, Hunger for None.
A year of milestones
At Leaps, we have invested heavily in building the next generation of cancer therapies, part of Bayer’s mission to become one of the top 10 oncology companies in the world by 2030. In the past decade, immunotherapies have revolutionized treatment for certain cancers, but remain limited or inaccessible for patients with some of the deadliest types. New Leaps portfolio companies Indapta, Affini-T, Capstan — and our newest addition, NextPoint, — are bringing bold new approaches to developing the next generation of immunotherapies, leveraging advances in synthetic biology and cell engineering to bring these potentially lifesaving treatments to patients.
Our investments in oncology are part of a broader commitment to cell and gene therapies that has been an integral part of the Leaps mission since our first investments in 2015. Reprogramming our body’s cells has given us new hope in the fight against autoimmune and degenerative diseases, and Leaps portfolio companies are pushing the frontier of these exciting new therapies. Cellino is using AI and laser physics to scale up the manufacturing of cell therapies with the goal of making them accessible to more patients worldwide. At Leaps, we are also investing in the future of mRNA therapeutics, which have been in the spotlight since they helped turn the tide against COVID. ReCode is using these breakthrough technologies, along with a proprietary lipid nanoparticle delivery platform, to deliver genetic medicines directly to the cells and organs most affected by disease, increasing treatment efficacy while lowering the risk of side effects.
AI and big data are also changing the practices of drug discovery and patient care, and in 2022, Leaps invested in several companies that are working to transform health with data. Portfolio company Gandeeva is harnessing AI and electron microscopy to improve protein engineering and accelerate the discovery, design, and development of novel, precision medicines. And Woebot is building an AI-powered chatbot to help democratize access to therapy. I am hopeful that AI can help reduce barriers to treatment and enhance patient care worldwide.
As the climate change crisis continues to become more urgent, Leaps has continued its investments in sustainable agriculture. This has always been a core part of the Leaps mission, and last year, I was proud to see some of our early investments start to bear fruit. CoverCress, one of our first Leaps portfolio companies, is engineering a cover crop that can help produce renewable biofuels and low carbon animal feedstock, and Bayer acquired a 65 percent majority stake in the company last year. We are also expanding our investment in alternative protein supplies by investing in companies like NuCicer, which is using machine learning and a genome-guided breeding platform to produce high-protein chickpeas to feed our growing planet.
The advances and milestones from this past year give me hope for 2023. Coming back from the 2023 JP Morgan Health Care conference, I was struck by the excitement across in the industry in the cell and gene therapy space. I’ll be watching as companies like Affini-T work to develop cell therapies for solid tumors, which are common in some of the deadliest types of cancer. I’m looking forward to trials of living microbial medicines from companies like Bloom, which aims to leverage the microbiome to treat neurological disease. I’m also optimistic that AI and big data will lead to better, smarter, and more precise drug design across a variety of platforms.
I am also optimistic about breakthroughs in sustainable agriculture. Using epigenetic modification, Sound Agriculture is creating healthier, tastier, and more sustainable crops, in addition to their nitrogen fixation platform, and Andes is engineering soil microbes to sequester carbon. The alternative protein space has also flourished in the past few years, and I look forward to watching as companies like NuCicer and Fork and Good begin to bring some of these foods to dinner tables everywhere.
Last year brought abundant evidence that scientific advances have the potential to bring transformative new solutions to immense challenges like climate change, food insecurity, cancer, and chronic diseases. I’m looking forward to the progress that this year will bring.