NEW YORK – Stellaromics, a startup cofounded by prizewinning researcher Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University, said on Thursday that it has raised $25 million in Series A financing to support product development and early-access programs for its spatial omics technology.
Plaisance Capital Management and a private family office based in Silicon Valley led the round. Plaisance's Ye Fu, a Stellaromics cofounder, will serve as chief technology officer while Todd Dickinson, most recently CEO of Cantata Bio, will serve as CEO.
Company officials said they would use the money to fund development of its Plexa platform, an automated instrument that will run a commercial version of the STARmap (spatially resolved transcript amplification readout mapping) method. This 3D, high-resolution, spatial omics workflow was developed by Deisseroth and Xiao Wang, now a researcher at the Broad Institute and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The company has secured exclusive licenses to intellectual property covering STARmap from Stanford and the Broad, and also for the related methods RiboMap (ribosome-bound mRNA mapping), which provides information on translation, and STARmap plus, which adds data on proteins in a sample.
Stellaromics will also use the funding to launch an instrument early-access program and service-based tech access program in the first quarter of 2024. The firm seeks to hire staff and establish a new headquarters in the Boston area.
"We have already dramatically improved signal-to-noise ratio and decreased imaging time," Fu said. "The instrument is going to be much more automated without human interactions. Everything will be more streamlined."
Founded in 2022, Stellaromics will enter the single-cell spatial transcriptomics market at an interesting moment. NanoString Technologies, 10x Genomics, and Vizgen have all launched instruments offering high-resolution methods that can provide data on RNA and proteins. NanoString was first to market with CosMx, while 10x's Xenium platform is beginning to take hold and the firm has used its intellectual property portfolio to attack its competition, especially NanoString. And just about every company in the space, including Rebus Biosystems and Resolve Biosciences, has seen people lose their jobs over the last two years.
Unfazed, Stellaromics sees a market in its infancy. "This whole movement is just beginning," Dickinson said, estimating that the spatial biology market could be as big as $12 billion, with only 5 percent of that already penetrated.
The company is hoping that STARmap's ability to analyze thicker tissue slices will differentiate it, especially in applications such as tumor microenvironment and neurological research. After all, it has its roots in Deisseroth's brain-focused lab.
Perhaps most well-known for inventing optogenetics, a method that enables control of neuron activity by manipulation with light, Deisseroth and Wang developed STARmap while she was a postdoc in his lab, culminating in a proof-of-concept study published in Science in July 2018.
An in situ technology, STARmap uses padlock probes and sequencing-by-ligation to reveal barcodes for specific genes. At the time of their initial publication, they showed the ability to identify over 1,000 genes, limited primarily by optical physics. The method offers spatial resolution near the diffraction limit of light: 100 nm or better, for a single transcript.
Wang has gone on to develop additional STARmap-based assays, including RiboMap and STARmap plus, among others. In a paper published earlier this year, Wang's lab used barcodes twice as long — 10 bp — which theoretically could be used to barcode up to 20,000 genes, enough to cover the whole human transcriptome.
Fu, Stellaromics' CTO, said that the company is looking to launch with a cell typing assay that covers between 250 and 500 genes. The assay will come with some preselected content, but will allow for customization. That would be close to the approximately 300-gene panels for 10x's Xenium and less than CosMx's 1,000-gene panels.
That assay will run on an automated platform, dubbed Plexa, which will speed up the workflow. (In the STARmap protocols, pipetting is mostly done manually, Wang said.) Plexa will also be able to run 12 samples at a time; each circular region will have a diameter of 15 mm, or an area of approximately 175 mm2. Run time is "similar to other spatial platforms," Fu said, at two days or more, depending on the number of genes being analyzed.
Company officials stressed that they see STARmap's 3D capabilities as a differentiator. "With thick tissues, you see information missing in thin slices," Fu said. The STARmap assay can profile tissues as thin as 5 um, but typically handles slices in the 20 um to 50 um range. The thick tissue protocol can handle tissues between 100 um and 200 um.
"Our roots are in the neuro space, so it's a good product-market fit for that group," Dickinson said. Interest in the platform has also come from the immunoncology research field, where the extra depth could provide more information on tumor microenvironment and cell interactions. Skin and retinal samples could also be unlocked by the technology, he added.
Wang estimated that there are between 10 and 20 other labs running STARmap, based on the volume of emails she receives for troubleshooting help, an indicator of the potential customer base for Stellaromics. Dickinson predicted that the early customer mix would skew toward academic research with only about 25 percent of customers coming from pharma; however, he also predicted that would change. "Over the coming five years or so, we're going to see that flip," he said.
Wang pointed to a recent paper her lab published in September in Nature, on a spatial atlas of the mouse central nervous system. Included in that was data on adeno-associated virus tropism — the ability of different strains to infect different types of cells. These data lead her to believe there could be "beneficial partnership" between [Stellaromics] and companies working on nucleic acid-based therapies or DNA delivery tools.
Stellaromics officials said they have not yet finalized pricing, although they are aiming to reduce the cost per sample, which they suggested is currently between $2,500 and $4,000. Fu said the STARmap assays use fewer probes than other methods, which can reduce cost. That would offset an instrument price that he said is "likely to be towards the higher end" of the spatial biology market, due to the use of confocal microscopy.
Further down the road, Stellaromics will follow up the STARmap assay with a RiboMap assay. "This assay profiles protein synthesis in a highly multiplexed manner, and will be able to provide proteomics-level information without the requirement of thousands of validated antibodies," the firm said in an email, adding that it expects to add more "functional" assays in the future.