Basecamp Research Just Raised $20 Million To Build A Database Of All Life

Earlier this year I was in Borneo, the third largest island in the world and Southeast Asia’s biodiversity hotspot. Borneo’s rainforest is estimated to be around 140 million years old – one of the oldest rainforests in the world that is home to many species which cannot be found anywhere else on our planet. The biodiversity of the island holds many secrets that scientists are just beginning to uncover through bioprospecting: meticulous sampling, sequencing, and cataloging of the millions of species that reside in these untouched ecosystems. The potential cancer cures, novel antibiotics, and molecules with anti-aging properties may be out there – they just haven’t been discovered yet.

With advances in biotechnology, we can now easily sample the genetic sequences of thousands of plants, animals, and microbes. Sequencing of DNA from different organisms has revealed a whole palette of proteins and enzymes that can perform countless functions from making sustainable materials, flavors, and fragrances to developing novel medicines. The field of synthetic biology, which has exploded in the last decade, relies on finding proteins with specific characteristics – like making a fluffier egg white or a sweeter flavor. But how do scientists find those proteins? They usually turn to databases of natural sequences for inspiration. The chances are – whatever you are looking for, nature has already created. But the success of finding it depends on how rich and diverse the data is.

This is why biodiversity could be a big business. But it is fraught with controversy: profiting from nature’s riches has historically been associated with exploitative practices dating back to the colonial period. From quinine used to treat malaria to neem, which made for an infamous revoked patent case, active ingredients found in plants are often identified from the knowledge of Indigenous cultures and extracted from the resources that belong to those communities. In the age of biotechnology, genetic sequences have become an equally valuable commodity, raising concerns of digital biopiracy that may be even harder to trace than the use of physical plant material. The big question is: how can we tap into the biological diversity of our planet without taking advantage of Indigenous communities or disrupting ecosystems?

Basecamp Research, a London-based biotech company, is working to solve this quandary. With a mission to reconnect biotechnology with biodiversity, they are building the world’s largest database of natural DNA sequences that is entirely ethically sourced. This week, Basecamp Research announced that they have raised $20 million in Series A funding [KT1] led by climate investor Systemiq Capital, bringing the company’s total funding to $30 million. The Basecamp team is working around the world to establish partnerships with local communities to gather and protect biological data, as well as to make it easier for synthetic biology companies to gain access to valuable genetic information which can help them develop new sustainable products.

Nature outsmarts scientists

Synthetic biologists today are engineering new catalytic enzymes and therapeutic proteins using advanced tools like artificial intelligence. But a machine learning model is only as good as the data it is trained on. The company’s co-founders, Glen Gowers and Oliver Vince, understand this limitation better than anyone else. While getting their PhDs in synthetic biology and bioengineering, they both spent considerable time trying to improve enzymes using cutting-edge protein engineering tools, only to be humbled by finding out that a better version was already available in nature.

Photo: Basecamp Research Co-Founder Glen Gowers at a site in Iceland. Credit: Basecamp Research

“We got outcompeted by just finding a better protein in nature,” recalled Glen. “And it seeded this idea that nature already has the solutions that biotech is looking for. We just don’t have the search tools or the resources to really be able to understand it.”

The Basecamp co-founders had another thing in common: their passion for the outdoors. In 2019, they went on a month-long expedition to Europe’s largest icecap in Iceland to set up the first fully off-grid DNA sequencing operation. After coming back from the expedition and analyzing the data they collected there, they were amazed to discover an incredible diversity of life in such a harsh environment: “We’ve since discovered that far, far less than 1% of what’s out there in terms of genetic biodiversity has been discovered,” estimates Vince. “And even what we do know has not been able to be analyzed by biotechnology companies.”

The two started Basecamp Research to help create the most comprehensive biological sequence database that exists. They have assembled a diverse team of experts from world-class field researchers to biodiversity specialists, molecular biologists, and data scientists. The company’s multi-dimensional data is annotated with tags that map nature’s genetic diversity to where the samples were collected from, the environmental variables, and any other information available. They then use proprietary deep-learning techniques to discover new proteins and optimize them to meet their customers’ specifications, with applications that span pharma, diagnostics, cosmetics, gene editing, nutrition, and bioremediation.

Protecting biodiversity through partnership building

The work Basecamp Research is doing to catalog and mine natural biodiversity is only one part of the company’s effort. The other is building partnerships with local communities, conservation agencies, and establishing agreements on the regulatory side. The concerns about companies commercializing Indigenous knowledge and natural resources have led the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to establish the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement that aims at sharing the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources in a fair and equitable way . What that means is that if you find a sequence in the jungles of Borneo, you should be paying some of the royalties back to the people of Borneo.

The use of genetic data, or digital sequence information (DSI
), is one of the ongoing topics of discussion at the COP15 conference happening right now in Montreal, Canada, where the world leaders have gathered to establish measures to protect biological biodiversity, improve conservation efforts, and ensure ethical benefits sharing from the use of genetic resources. Some countries are worried that DSI has become a loophole for companies to avoid sharing profits deriving from their biodiversity and are pushing for more strict rules to compensate them for discoveries using DNA sequences. While the Protocol ensures the ethical use of resources, it can create a lot of red tape for companies trying to gain access to valuable genetic sequences.

Basecamp Research wants to make it easier for researchers to gain access to valuable genetic data without violating any ethical considerations. Every sample they collect is compliant with the United Nation’s Nagoya Protocol. Their goal is to make the Nagoya Protocol work for all parties: they do the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing agreements so that when companies come to them for assets, they do not have to worry about infringing national and international biodiversity laws: “We have partnerships in 18 countries with biodiversity hotspots,” said Oliver. “These are benefit-sharing arrangements where we give back: we build research capacity, do training and develop labs in those countries.”

This is the kind of team effort it takes to ensure that the local communities do not get left behind. On my travels to Borneo over the years I met Charlie Yeo who is the CEO of the Sarawak Biodiversity Center in Kuching, Malaysia. The Center embodies the principles of conservation, responsible resource utilization, and protection of natural biodiversity. It was originally established to be the gatekeeper for those who wanted access to Sarawak’s biological resources for research or commercial purposes, but it has since then become much more. Charlie and other Sarawak staff members go out to places to sequence the biodiversity and learn about how the indigenous people use their resources while ensuring that the communities can also benefit from it.

“The role of the Sarawak Biodiversity Center is to regulate research and to facilitate ethical access to traditional knowledge and genetic resources,” says Charlie. “We have a regulatory framework to ensure that we can work with companies under mutually agreed terms. These agreements need to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources for the companies, Sarawak, and indigenous peoples and local communities.”

Glen commented on the importance of the work done by the Sarawak Centre: “Sarawak Biodiversity Center is a model of what we would love to see happen in every country and on every continent,” he said. “These are centers dedicated to the exploration of their own biodiversity and hopefully the monetization of their own diversity without disruption of ecosystems. This is an amazing core foundational principle of Sarawak Biodiversity Center that we share.”

“They have done incredible work and we would love to partner with them in the future,” seconded Oliver.

In less than three years, the Basecamp team has collected samples at 65 expeditions from Antarctica to the Azores and developed a sophisticated biological database. That database can be accessed by companies to develop novel pharmaceuticals, materials, animal-free protein alternatives, enzyme catalysts used for biomanufacturing, and more. As they work to establish the largest knowledge base of genetic sequences, they have already collected thousands of samples from 40% of the Earth’s biomes and expanded the diversity of proteins known to science by 50%. And they’re just getting started.

“Biodiversity is the most important resource of our natural world that we need to protect,” thinks Oliver. A single drug can go for billions of dollars but there is a lot of bureaucracy involved to be able to gain access to these valuable protein sequences. Basecamp company aims to build a bridge between biotechnology and bioeconomy where economic benefits from biotechnology go back to supporting biodiversity and biodiversity exploration fuels the development of biotechnology. Hopefully, with the help of organizations like the Sarawak Biodiversity Center and Basecamp Research, biotechnology will be able to harness the power of nature to its full extent while also giving back.

Thank you to Katia Tarasava for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest.