Deep science investor Lindy Fishburne co-founded the seed- and early-stage venture firm Breakout Ventures several years ago, after cofounding Breakout Labs within the Thiel Foundation back in 2011. She has amassed a wide array of stakes in the process. Among her firm’s portfolio companies is Cortexyme, a company that aims to treat Alzheimer’s disease; the maker of the sustainable material Modern Meadow; and Stratos, a company whose robotic cloud platform is remaking how lab work gets done.
We talked with Fishburne late this week about where we are in the arc of this pandemic based on what she is seeing. We also talked about why more of her investments, which once seemed like long shots, suddenly look like solid bets. Parts of our chat below have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
TC: We want to be excited about the progress being made in vaccinating Americans. Based on the conversations you’re having, what’s your sense of things?
LF: The acceleration of the vaccines is like nothing we’ve ever seen before in science, and now we are down to the unsexy part of the logistics of rolling them out. That’s our biggest challenge. Then the next piece we’re going to have to confront is what happens when the world is vaccinated [at] unequal levels and how people feel about travel and exposure and equity along with those issues.
TC: Science has been the big story of the last year. Are you hearing from investors and potential syndicate partners who weren’t reaching out previously?
LF: Yes. The pandemic has brought the importance of investing in science into sharp relief. For the first time, we’re seeing a whole set of what you would think of as traditional tech investors who read about the mRNA vaccine that Moderna coded in a weekend and who are starting to believe that we’re able to engineer biology and that it doesn’t feel like a craft process anymore.
TC: You talk about coding a vaccine. Are laboratories becoming less critical in that scientists can do much more in simulation and, if so, what does that mean for human testing? Are we getting to a point where we don’t have to rely on human testing as much as we did in the past?
LF: That’s where we hope to get on the human testing piece. We’re not there yet. You may have read and heard about organs on a chip and growing organoids, where you can have a tiny amount of liver that you’re able to test toxicity on [and] we’re doing more of that. That said, we’re not ready to make that leap from completely doing it in silico to humans with a super-high level of confidence. The human body is such a complex system that we’re not able to model that entirely yet.
I think what you’re pointing toward to some degree is democratization in science and the access for more people to be able with lower skills to be able to work in drug discovery and drug development at a distance. So, for example, we have a company that we’ve worked with called Stratos that has a full robotic lab that — instead of having technicians standing there — you have robots and a miniature train track that moves assays throughout the room so that scientists who were stuck at home this year we’re able to continue experiments regardless of their geography or safety in the lab or time constraints.