founder

Founder Profile: Finding A Needle In A Haystack With Machine Learning

Summary

At the time of publication, May 29th, 2019, Pluton Bioscience had raised $76,000
Without realizing it, sitting in your front lawn are the potential makings of replacements for harmful chemicals like pesticides or new treatment solutions for viruses like Zika.

That’s because living in the ground is billions of natural microbes all with different capabilities for doing good. But with so many microbes, research in the space fell off. Many chemical, food and pharma companies saw the potential of microbe solutions as a true needle in a haystack, and worried about the ROI of such research efforts. Until now!

Pluton Biosciences has created a new machine learning enabled process for scanning billions of microbes and creating a more efficient system for identifying potentially lifesaving microbe solutions.

We sat down with CEO Charlie Walch to discuss how he and his team are bringing a new age of innovation to microbe research. Check out our discussion below.  
Chris Lustrino

Charlie, how did Pluton Biosciences come to be?

Charlie Walch

Charlie: In the fall of 2016, Barry Goldman approached me about a business plan he had formulated based on his thirty-plus years in research science. I thought Barry’s plan had merit and I was selling my old business and was in a position to start a new company. We agreed to give it a try. With that, Pluton Biosciences was officially born in January 2017.  

Chris Lustrino

For those that don’t know, how do you define Pluton Biosciences as a business in one sentence?

Charlie Walch

Pluton Biosciences is a microbial discovery company who conducts targeted basic research and licenses our discoveries – which are new (or novel byproducts from) bacteria, fungi, and viruses – to producers of sustainable biosolutions.  

Chris Lustrino

Can you talk more about how the micromining process works?

Charlie Walch

Micromining is the microbial discovery platform our scientists use. It’s a high throughput process that screens billions of microbes from a diverse set of microbial communities to find the handful of useful microbes (the actives) against a specific target (the outcome).

To give a concrete example, our first Micromining target was to kill the larvae of the mosquito Aedes aegypti, carrier of the Zika virus, and vector for yellow fever, dengue fever, and Chikungunya. Through Micromining, we found ten new bacteria with insecticidal properties to kill Aedes larvae from 100 random samples of soil. Some of the soil samples came from our own backyard!

Chris Lustrino

Can you talk about the value of microbes and the types of problems they can help solve?

Charlie Walch

Microbes are primarily bacteria, fungi, and viruses. They live everywhere; in us, on us, all around us. Over the past 4 billion years, microbes have developed millions of unique chemical pathways, enabling them to do just about anything us humans can imagine happening in the physical world. They are nature’s master inventors and there are billions of new microbial species waiting to be discovered.  

Pluton’s first experiments target finding new microbes to replace dangerous chemical treatments in the agriculture and pest control industries.

Chris Lustrino

Why has this area been overlooked for many years by major pharmaceutical organizations?

Charlie Walch

Until the 1980s, it wasn’t. The golden age of Antibiotics from the ’40s through the ’70s was driven by assay-based microbial discovery techniques. Big pharma quit looking for several reasons. One was they were having trouble finding new active microbes with the tools available at the time.

Now, with big data and genomic sequencing, assay-based discovery can pick up where they left off. Second up, a now dated hypothesis took hold that “99% of bacteria in soil can’t be cultured in the lab”. Since many of the antibiotics had come from soil discovery, this dogma slowed attempts at further research.  

A third factor was the cost of discovery. The laborious techniques were full of dead ends and required “blockbuster” drugs to justify the investment.

Combining today’s tools with our high throughput approach and talented research scientists, Pluton aims to be at the forefront of a new golden age of microbial discovery.  

Chris Lustrino

If the business model is to be a licensing organization for the development of new microbes, how will these deals be structured?

Charlie Walch

We envision collaboration will be at the center of our licensing strategy. This is nothing new. Typically, a lab (academic or commercial) use a “Material Transfer Agreement” to grant other organizations a limited “research-only” license. Patents are also typically filed before an MTA is granted.  

From here, if the receiving organization believes the discovery can yield a viable product, they can negotiate for an exclusive commercial license, enter into a joint venture, or various other flavors of development agreements.

Chris Lustrino

What type of progress have you made to date and what is your competitive differentiator that will keep you ahead of other competition?

Charlie Walch

We have killed a lot of mosquito larvae in the lab! With minimal resources, Pluton now has 10 different strains of bacteria that hitherto have not been used, either widely or at all, in insecticidal treatments. We have one joint development agreement underway and are negotiating two more – one of which is for a new mosquito biolarvicide.    

 

Microbial discovery is a basic research service. In 2015, academic labs conducted 81% of the basic research nationwide. Bio-producers currently have three choices for sourcing new commercial discoveries: they can wait for academic labs to publish new discoveries, they can make new discoveries through their own in-house research efforts, or they can buy new products that have been developed by startup companies.

Waiting on academic research misses market opportunities, in-house research requires investments in expensive infrastructure, and buying developed products requires paying a premium. Pluton’s Micromining® platform offers bioproducers a low-cost targeted “buy not make or wait” alternative to microbial discovery and allows established producers to fully leverage their own product development infrastructure. 

Pluton is a first mover play. Our objective is to rapidly build a patent portfolio of novel microbial compositions for commercial development. Our assay-design and microbial selection know-how are trade secrets. Pluton’s long-term competitive advantage resides in lab automation investments, team expertise, and our Microbiome Library of sample sources.

This proprietary database will enable Pluton to characterize microbiomes and use AI to virtually target new microbial sources for commercial discovery and research collaboration.

Chris Lustrino

What types of organizations would want to license these types of microbe solutions to and is it just applicable to pharma or are there other applicable industries too?

Charlie Walch

Actually agriculture crop protection & stimulants along with environmental vector control are our first target industries. They have a shorter regulatory path to market than Pharma. Other uses for our research include recycling and waste remediation, environmental restoration, health & wellness products, food nutrition & safety,

Chris Lustrino

Where do you see the business in 5 years?

Charlie Walch

In 5 years, we’d like to have a small group of scientists working in a highly automated lab environment churning out 5 to 6 commercial discoveries per year for customers. Alongside this high-throughput research lab, Pluton will have a big data “Microbiome Data Library” built. This proprietary data library will become a subscription-based research portal helping researchers to define new targets and model the impact and effectiveness of microbial solutions in the environment.

Chris Lustrino

How will the capital from this round be deployed and do you have a sense of how much capital will be needed to get the first Pluton Bioscience licensing deal live?

Charlie Walch

Seed capital will be spent in 2019 and 2020 to:

  • Bring founders into business full-time, hire a computational biologist
  • Outfit lab with equipment and staff to make two new discoveries
    • Assay-ready targets
      • Agriculture: Root-knot nematode, Fall Armyworm, Whiteflies
      • Animal Health: Horn Flies
  • Formulate & co-license mosquito larvicidal
  • Secure customers for JDA’s on two discoveries
  • Hire Data engineers/software developers to build LIMS and Microbiome Library database

As for the last question, it is anticipated that Pluton will not outlay significant capital to license our mosquito larvicide or other biopesticides developed from our first discovery. The nature of Joint Development Agreements is the licensee bears most of the cost of development in exchange for access to the licensor’s intellectual property.

Pluton Biosciences is a really unique technology solution with a strong management team and a clear path to market. With the potential to create lifesaving new microbe-based formulas and green solutions to replace old chemicals, we like the prospect of what this team is building.

 If interested, be sure to invest HERE.

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About: Chris Lustrino

A Boston College Eagle for life, on a mission to democratize startup investing for all people at KingsCrowd, with a passion for Fintech, investing, social impact, doing well and doing good, and an avid runner, cyclist and writer.

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