CHICAGO – Silicon Valley is famous — and sometimes infamous — for companies founded by college dropouts. While LatchBio is not in the league of Apple, Twitter, or certainly not the scandal-plagued Theranos, its leaders all left school early to start the company and hit the venture capital market.
The three founders, CEO Alfredo Andere, Chief Operating Officer Kyle Giffin, and Chief Technology Officer Kenny Workman, all met as undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley, and walked away from their studies to build a company.
San Francisco-based LatchBio incorporated in early 2021 and emerged from stealth mode in October by announcing a $5 million seed round. The company this month closed a $28 million Series A funding round, giving it the money to hire more staff, particularly software engineers, in a hotly competitive labor market, according to Workman.
LatchBio offers a web-based technology platform for researchers to store, analyze, and visualize multiomics data without the need for programming or other technical skills. The LatchBio platform features an automated software development kit (SDK) to create interfaces to bioinformatics pipelines and visualization tools including CRISPResso2, DeepMind Technologies' AlphaFold 2, and various RNA sequencing processors.
The firm provides a series of "no-code" tools for biologists who lack bioinformatics expertise. No-code development is a relatively new phenomenon in the world of web development that allows people without specific programming knowledge to build software via graphical user interfaces such as LatchBio's SDK.
"We're making it so that you don't even [have to] know about cloud deployment," Workman said. "You can just use the [user interface]."
The SDK is "completely generalizable," according to Workman. LatchBio simply chose to apply its technology to omics analysis, starting with gene editing and CRISPR with the PCR-amplifying gene editing analysis tool CRISPResso. Users then began uploading whole-genome analysis apps like AlphaFold 2 for protein structure prediction, broadening the ecosystem's reach.
"Pretty much whatever you can imagine that has to do with sequencing or multiomics, people are using the SDK to generate no-code interfaces," Workman said.
Workman has been working in wet labs since he was 15, though LatchBio did not originate in a lab, but rather came from the ambitions of the three founders.
"For all of us, the general interest to synthesize computing with biology represented an unexplored frontier that we really wanted to work on," Workman said.
LatchBio is hardly the first company to seek to automate omics pipelines, as numerous vendors routinely claim that they want to "democratize" data, making information accessible to people who do not have an informatics background. Workman said that ease of use remains an issue throughout the research world.
"There is a rich but fragmented ecosystem of software tools written ad hoc by researchers across the country" that are pushed out to the internet with little or no coordination, he said. "The problem we're solving is making these tools robust, scalable, usable for people who don't know how to code."
LatchBio decided to make its software a web-based platform rather than a standalone app. "[We're] building an ultramodern cloud computing stack and delivering rapid updates through the browser to scientists directly at a much faster cadence than they would receive if they had a standalone desktop application," Workman said.
"The way that we are turning static code that has been somewhat broken or unmaintained and chucked on the [internet] into something that is a reproducible no-code interface should change the way that researchers interact with these tools," Workman said. "A script that a researcher wrote that didn't work anymore is now a permanent piece of high-quality software, and we think this tool would dramatically accelerate the ability for researchers to do fundamental science."
LatchBio is building its software ecosystem by grabbing pieces of widely disseminated open-source code, accepting creations from its clients, and writing some custom apps itself to meet customer needs. The firm both curates a "small set of well-maintained pipelines" and offers tools to allow users to upload and use other datasets, according to Workman.
The company can write custom code for its commercial customers that it can then offer to its entire user base. "We're always looking to generalize that custom work into the toolkit, bring it back to the ecosystem," Workman said.
Target markets include biotech and academia. LatchBio has announced the Innovative Genomics Institute, Bit.Bio, and Eligo Bioscience as early adopters.
LatchBio offers free and open access to academics. In the commercial market, the firm is mostly looking at fast-growing, nimble biotech startups that, according to Workman, can help LatchBio build and augment its technology quickly.
Workman said that LatchBio strives to become the "de facto" single cloud platform for biotech startups over the next several years.
As these types of startups develop new assays and seek new targets for drug candidates, "they should not [need to] know what AWS or GitHub is because they'll just be plugging into Latch and using what we have off the shelf in a way that's biologically tailored," Workman said.
The firm would also like to grow into the big pharma market in the future, but the current focus remains on startups.
LatchBio has already grown beyond the US market to include customers in Europe, Africa, and Latin America.
A fairly new user is OmicaBio, a population genomics startup that aims to diversify genomic research by serving various Latin American markets, including Latino populations in the US.
Based in Mexico City with an office in Brooklyn, New York, OmicaBio is building a biobank in Mexico and is looking to create reference genomes for various Latin American countries, much like Seven Bridges and the University of Sao Paulo are doing in Brazil.
Founder and CEO Victor Angel-Mosti said that OmicaBio started working with LatchBio about four months ago.
"We see a lot of potential for their technology in our mission," he said. "One of the biggest barriers that we see in diversifying genomic datasets is not only the lack of patients but the lack of technology to really drive research from local institutions."
Angel-Mosti said it is common in Latin America for researchers who are excited to unlock the potential of genomics, but who do not have the resources and skill to build pipelines and to analyze large-scale datasets for projects like genome-wide association studies. "Latch is really an incredible enabler for us in the sense that it allows us to provide these tools to local researchers," he said.
He said that scientific research in the "global south," including Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, has been hindered by lack of both government and private funding.
"Latch becomes this key to unlock these previously inaccessible tools" like DeepVariant and DeepMind, according to Angel-Mosti. He says he has seen academic institutions in Mexico that are unable to analyze their own exome data because they do not have the budget to run servers. Access to the cloud is one way around that problem.
"There are infrastructural challenges to the diversification of genomic datasets, and I do think that Latch is a huge enabler for regions like Mexico and LatAm," Angel-Mosti said.
OmicaBio is both a customer and partner of LatchBio.
"Being able to work alongside the Latch team in developing our own pipelines and testing out their SDK has really put Omica in a place where we can develop world-class pipelines accessible to researchers in LatAm," Angel-Mosti said. "We're solving a problem for researchers, and in exchange for that, they're giving us access to the research they have."
He said that Latch helps OmicaBio and its customers save money on the computational side and by allowing the firm to offer access to a bioinformatics pipeline through a Web browser. "The genomics community in the US underestimated just how big the need is for browser-based bioinformatics," Angel-Mosti said.
OmicaBio is getting ready to conduct a major GWAS on the Mexican population and to complete the first telomere-to-telomere Mexican genome in the next two months or so. Both will be run on Latch.
"A company like Latch opened up a floodgate of data analytics," Angel-Mosti said. "Dozens of researchers throughout the region are sitting on raw data that they can't even find, and they don't have access to computer scientists."
Universities in many parts of Latin America do not have the educational programs to train bioinformaticians, so Omica helps academic researchers build pipelines and then upload the data to Latch for analysis and subsequent publication to the scientific community.
"We wouldn't be able to do so as easily if Latch weren't there," Angel-Mosti said.