Bayer leads $80M funding round for Cellino, betting on new cell therapy manufacturing platform

Since it was established in 2017, Cellino Biotech has offered an intriguing approach to stem cell therapy manufacturing, combining biology, laser physics, gene editing tools and machine learning.

In April of last year, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, startup attracted $16 million in financing. Now, nine months later, it has a major player into its corner.

Bayer said Tuesday that its investment arm, Leaps by Bayer, is leading an $80 million series A financing round for the company founded by three young Harvard graduates.

“Cellino has a truly unique approach and an edge,” Juergen Eckhardt, M.D., who heads up Leaps by Bayer, said in an interview. “They are poised to become the leader in the field and really help unleash the potential of cell and gene therapy.”  

Cellino is guided by CEO Nabiha Saklayen, Ph.D., who helped create the company as she was studying for her doctorate at Harvard. In 2019, Saklayen and co-founders Marinna Madrid, Ph.D., and Stan Wang, M.D., Ph.D., were named to Forbes’ "30 Under 30," featuring young leaders who are transforming the healthcare industry.

Cellino has made waves with a platform that would facilitate manufacturing of stem-cell-derived therapies. Current therapies are difficult to scale because of the extensive manual work that is required, along with their high variability and expensive overhead costs.

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But Cellino’s platform uses machine learning to automate the process of removing unwanted cells instead of using the tedious, by-hand method. That automation cuts expenses and helps overcome limitations to scaling up production.

“It’s a cumbersome therapy. It’s not like popping a pill or getting an injection. Cell therapies are quite labor-intensive,” Eckhardt said. “That’s where Cellino comes in. Their mission is to automate most of that labor work in cell manufacturing, and through that automation really allow a scaling of that technology.”

The infusion of funds will allow Cellino to expand the software, machine learning and hardware capabilities for end-to-end manufacturing of cell-based therapies, both autologous—made from a patient's own cells—and allogenic, the so-called "off-the-shelf" therapies made from donor cells.

Cellino is developing a long-term collaboration with the NIH, where senior investigator Kapil Bharti is leading the first autologous induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC)-derived clinical trial in the U.S., to validate Cellino’s manufacturing approach. The company also plans to build early-stage GMP capabilities to support clinical trials.

Cellino’s next-generation approach has the potential to enable parallel processing of thousands of patient samples in a single facility, which is vital for scalable manufacturing. Inspired by the semiconductor industry, the company plans to build the first autonomous human cell foundry by 2025.

Bayer’s goal through Leaps is to identify and nurture cutting-edge, breakthrough technology platforms at an early stage. Leaps has poured more than $1.5 billion into some 50 promising ventures.

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“Eventually some of these investments will help Bayer renew its own technology portfolio, be it through a license or an acquisition,” Eckhardt said. “One of these focus areas for us is cell and gene therapy. The promise of cell therapy is just huge.”

One of the first companies in which Bayer invested is Blue Rock Therapeutics, a company Leaps founded in 2016 and Bayer acquired in 2019, paying $240 million to gain the remaining stake in the cell therapy joint venture. Blue Rock has continued to operate as an independent company.