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The 10 most innovative biotechnology companies of 2021

Why Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca top our 2021 list.

The 10 most innovative biotechnology companies of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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The response to COVID-19 took center stage this year, spurring biotech companies on our list to develop tests and vaccines in record time. AI for drug discovery, single-cell genomics, RNA-based drugs, and bio-based manufacturing were other hot areas for innovation—continuing the meld of natural biology and cutting-edge innovation.

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1. Pfizer-BioNTech

For being first to market with an effective COVID-19 vaccine 

Even without help from Operation Warp Speed, New-York-headquartered drug maker Pfizer and German manufacturing partner BioNTech managed to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine in record time, getting FDA Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and distributing millions of doses less than a year after the genetic sequence of COVID-19 was first obtained. The first mRNA vaccine approved for any disease, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was 95% effective after two doses in trials.

1. Moderna

For making a COVID-19 vaccine that can travel

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A week after the Pfizer authorization, the FDA gave its second EUA for a COVID-19 vaccine to Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna’s shot, which was over 94% effective in trials. Like Pfizer’s vaccine, Moderna’s mRNA vaccine requires two inoculations. But it can be stored in a regular freezer, while Pfizer’s vaccine must be kept at minus 94ºF. Moderna has several other mRNA vaccines and therapeutics in Phase 1 or 2 trials.

Mariana Matus, cofounder and CEO of Biobot Analytics [Photo: Tony Luong]

3. Biobot Analytics

For using sewage to detect the next surge

“Wastewater epidemiology” startup Biobot Analytics uses genomic and chemical assays and data analytics to detect viruses, bacteria, and chemicals in a community’s sewage. The company started out testing municipal waste for opioid drug use, but when COVID-19 hit, it rapidly figured out how to detect the virus in sewage. “Wastewater captures people who are shedding virus but may not show symptoms,” says cofounder and computational biologist Mariana Matus. “You see the spike a week before you see it in the clinic.” More than 400 cities, universities, and campuses have used Biobot, and to date, the company has tested over 10% of the U.S. population.

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4. Oxford University-AstraZeneca

For finding a different path to a COVID-19 vaccine

Unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which use mRNA to coax cells to produce a COVID-19 spike protein, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine uses DNA tucked inside a modified chimpanzee cold virus to trick cells into producing coronavirus antigens. The DNA-based vaccine doesn’t need to be frozen and can be refrigerated for up to six months. It was approved in the U.K. in December, and remains viable for six months with standard refrigeration.

5. Zymergen

For cleaning up electronics manufacturing with biology

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Emeryville, CA based “biomanufacturer” Zymergen uses engineered microbes to create industrial less-toxic insecticides and sustainable bioplastics. In 2020, with Japan’s Sumitomo Chemical, Zymergen launched its first commercial product for the electronics industry, a super-thin film used in flexible circuits, display touch sensors and printable electronics. The company has also developed custom microbial strains that optimize the production of animal feed, reducing manufacturers’ CO2 emissions by roughly 80,000 tons per year, and it is developing microbes that break down plastic. Zymergen raised $300 million in Series D in September.

6. Twist Bioscience

For printing RNA for viral diagnostics

One of the leading makers of synthetic DNA for research and industrial uses, San Francisco-based Twist Bioscience pivoted when COVID-19 hit, adapting its method for “writing” DNA on a silicon chip to produce more-delicate RNA instead. It quickly developed a synthetic “control” version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has been used by numerous labs to develop and validate tests and antibodies for the virus, without the risk of exposure to the virus itself. Twist also introduced its Respiratory Virus Panel, which detects COVID-19, MERS, SARS, and other strains of coronavirus, influenza, pneumonia, and more.

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7. GlaxoSmithKline

For building a drug pipeline fueled by genetic evidence

In the past two years, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has obtained a dozen new approvals for medicines and vaccines (with nine in 2020 alone). Showing its commitment to genetically validated drug development, GSK has partnered with pioneers in CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) and is working on nearly 30 new early-discovery programs for cancer and neurological, cardiovascular, and metabolic diseases with 23andMe.

8. Sherlock Biosciences

For speeding up testing with synthetic biology

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CRISPR-based diagnostics company Sherlock Biosciences developed the first FDA-authorized CRISPR-based SARS-CoV-2 test kit, which can return results in about an hour (versus traditional tests’ four-to-six-hour processing). In November, the company received a $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the development of a disposable, over-the-counter version of the test.

9. Atomwise

For fitting molecular jigsaw pieces together

San Francisco-based Atomwise uses AI for structure-based small-molecule drug discovery, aiming to cut months or years out of the development cycle for partners like Eli Lilly and Bridge Biotherapeutics. In April 2020, it expanded a strategic partnership with Hansoh Pharma, a leading Chinese biopharma company, to develop novel oncology drugs, and advanced a project with Bayer to develop new crop-protection products.

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10. 10x Genomics

For bringing single-cell genomics into mainstream science

10x Genomics makes hardware and software for single-cell analytics, helping researchers pinpoint cellular changes in specific types of tissue or sections a tumor. In 2020, it had some 250 patents issued, with about 500 pending. A new spatial molecular profiling tool lets researchers see how cells are organized in relation to one another, to create “maps” of gene expression across a tumor or tissue sample and develop highly targeted new treatments.