Sajith Wickramasekara, Benchling’s CEO and co-founder.

Eight months after enabling its R&D cloud to support FDA-regulated work done in later stages of biopharma product development, Benchling has expanded its business focus to include biopharmas engaged in early development of drugs and vaccines.

The life-sci-focused R&D cloud developer has launched what it says is the first-ever cloud solution for any R&D organization intent on bridging scientific research and product development.

Benchling says its entry into early development will help customers by saving them time—and money—in drug development through a single solution designed to challenge legacy electronic lab notebooks (ELN), laboratory information management systems (LIMS), and laboratory execution systems (LES)—systems that impede collaboration by keeping data separately.

“We talk a lot at Benchling about this being the ‘Century of Biology,’ and I think the implications are absolutely profound, from the medicines we take to the food we eat, the crops we grow, the materials we wear, and household goods, and so forth,” Benchling CEO and co-founder Sajith Wickramasekara told GEN Edge.

Wickramasekara launched Benchling back in 2012 with Ashu Singhal, the company’s President. Speaking with GEN Edge last year, Wickramasekara recalled how while software industry had advanced collaboration tools at the time: “If I compared that to the life sciences, everything was running on paper, email, and spreadsheets! It was very challenging to work with others on increasingly complex work.”

“I founded Benchling to scratch that itch and to build tools that I would have liked to use as a lab scientist—build to the point where I’d be excited to do scientific research again!” he said.

Since then, the company has built out a suite of cloud-based applications that enable its customers to design DNA, collaborate on experiments, automate data capture, manage research workflows, and enable rapid decision-making.

“When scientists start using Benchling, we see an over 60% improvement in the time they have to spend on manual and repetitive tasks. We also see a 4.5x increase in the ROI our customers see from their software investments,” Singhal said September 14 at a virtual event held to formally launch Benchling’s expansion into early development.

Growth factors

Benchling finished 2020 celebrating a fourth straight year of doubling its annual recurring revenue, though the privately held company won’t disclose how much it generated.

Asked if it was able to sustain that pace of growth this year, Wickramasekara replied: We’re incredibly proud of the growth we’ve achieved this year. I can’t comment on specific growth rates, but we’re excited about our trajectory and the opportunities that lie ahead as we continue to expand in biopharma and beyond.”

Benchling is a leading player in scientific data management systems (SDMS), a market that according to Polaris Market Research is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 44% through 2027—from $24.2 million in 2019 to about almost $450 million.

Peer-to-peer review site G2 includes Benchling among its top five best SDMS providers, along with Labguru, SciNote, Thermo Fisher Scientific’s SampleManager LIMS Software, and Uncountable.

Wickramasekara said the needs of Benchling’s customers expanded as their data requirements multiplied: “Our customers are creating molecules that are thousands of times larger than what can be chemically synthesized, and what was once a simple chemical structure that could be drawn on a whiteboard represented with a string of text is now this complex protein whose structure we don’t actually know, and it takes a multi-dimensional data model to represent.”

Benchling also grew with the industry, he added, as drug development encompassed newer technologies like CAR-T cell therapies, CRISPR and base editing.

“We were working with startups like Editas Medicine and Beam Therapeutics early on. As they matured and got their products starting to enter clinical trials, they wanted to focus on scale-up,” Wickramasekara recalled. “To go from a proof of concept to working on process development, they needed a solution that can extend with them. So we’ve followed our customers along this journey as they matured.”

Further complicating matters for many of Benchling’s customers is the increasing complexity of regulations that customers face as they advance from bench research to early development.

“In early development,” Wickramasekara observed, “there’s more rigid processing compliance requirements. You need a lot of control and traceability. The collaboration complexity also goes up given all those regulatory requirements.”

Three innovations

Benchling says its move into early development is enabled by three innovations. One is the Benchling Validated Cloud solution launched in January to support customers working within GxP, an FDA-established collection of quality guidelines and regulations—such as GMP and GLP—designed to ensure that biopharma products are safe, meet their intended use, and adhere to quality processes during manufacturing, control, storage, and distribution.

Benchling has also expanded its Workflows application, with the goal of enabling specialized R&D teams from discovery to development work more efficiently together and reach critical milestones faster. The expansion allowed users to coordinate task requests and processes across teams with full traceability, including methods, samples, and inventory. In addition, program leaders gained visibility into operational data that is intended to reduce bottlenecks and increase productivity.

In addition, Benchling has launched structured templates that allow development teams to create shared, standardized processes for repeatable experiments, analytical tests, QC protocols, and more. The procedures can be locked down to meet regulatory and compliance requirements.

As a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business, Benchling said, it charges customers a subscription for access, and also offers consulting services that help customers implement the software quickly, train scientists on how to use it, and help them think through their scientific workflows and data modeling challenges. The company makes a version of its software free for researchers in academia and offers what it calls an affordable package for new startups, which has helped it build partnerships with venture capital firms and generators of biotech startups that include Flagship Pioneering.

Benchling’s R&D Cloud is used by more than 200,000 scientists across more than 600 biopharma, agritech, and industrial biotech companies, as well as about 7,000 academic and research institutions worldwide, including prominent institutions such as MIT and Stanford University.

Biopharma accounts for about 80% of Benchling’s customers, Wickramasekara said, with the rest consisting of companies in agricultural biotech, food, materials, consumer packaged goods, and chemicals. Biopharma users range from startups to 20 of the largest 50 biopharma companies—a list that includes Eli Lilly, Gilead Sciences, Regeneron, and Sanofi.

Benchling has attracted those biopharma customers in the face of competition from tech giants like Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft, which have also targeted life sciences customers for specific cloud services.

“R&D needs software specifically designed for complex scientific workflows, not generic or horizontal enterprise software offerings,” Wickramasekara said. “As companies spin out of academic labs and scientists leave for industry, they bring Benchling with them. We are becoming the default R&D Cloud for the next generation of innovative biotech companies.”

Early CRISPR support

Benchling has also been early to adapt its cloud offerings to life-sci innovation, adding support for CRISPR in 2014 when the technology was in its infancy, and recently added scientific awareness for RNA following the development of several successful mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines.

Outside of drug development, Benchling’s customers include agbio companies like Syngenta Corteva Agriscience; as well as Bolt Threads, which applies synthetic biology to produce ingredients for use in spider silk and other high-performance fabrics.

“Especially during the pandemic, everyone’s thinking about biomedicines, and that’s definitely the biggest segment of business for us. But it’s still very early for biology. If I zoom out and look over the next 10 years, I think that industries outside of medicine could be huge sources of business for us,” Wickramasekara said. “We’re very excited to see what happens there.”

Benchling’s expansion into early development caps what has been a busy year and a half for the company. Benchling completed a $50 million Series D financing in May 2020, launched its Benchling Validated Cloud in January of this year, and three months later raised an additional $200 million Series E financing. The Series E more than doubled Benchling’s total capital raised to about $350 million.

Sequoia Capital Global Equities led the Series E, joined by new investors Altimeter Capital, Byers Capital, and Elad Gil—as well as existing investors Thrive Capital, Benchmark, Menlo Ventures, Alkeon Capital, ICONIQ, Lux Capital, Spark Capital, and Lead Edge Capital.

Benchling has also doubled its headcount over the past 12 months, now exceeding 500 employees. That includes some 40 people based in Zurich, where the company last year opened a Europe-Middle East-Africa headquarters within Circle Business Center at Zurich Airport.

The company’s hires over the past year have included senior executives: Richard Wong, previously a senior executive at LinkedIn, joined as CFO, while Zach Powers, a former senior security executive at Salesforce, was named Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). Earlier this month, Lindsey Irvine was appointed Chief Marketing Officer after eight years at Salesforce, rising to CMO of its integration platform MuleSoft.

“We’ll be continuing to fill up our management team over the next year,” Wickramasekara said.

He said one reason for Benchling’s optimism about future growth comes from a study released in May 2020 by McKinsey that estimated as much as 60% of the physical inputs to the global economy could, in principle, be produced biologically.

“About one-third of these inputs are biological materials (wood or animals bred for food) and the remaining two-thirds are nonbiological (plastics or fuels) but could potentially be produced or substituted using biology,” McKinsey projected in “The Bio Revolution: Innovations transforming economies, societies, and our lives.”

Wickramasekara concluded: “We’re at the beginning of this long-term revolution. We have this amazing opportunity to help the industry evolve in a pre-competitive way, because we have so many best practices for how to do different types of research across all these organizations.”

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