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Novophage raises $5.75 million to battle bacterial build-up in the industrial world

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 31, 2011 11:00 AM

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A small Boston University & MIT spin-out company, Novophage, wrapped up its first round of funding last week, raising $5.75 million from a trio of local investors and Chevron Technology Ventures, an arm of the energy conglomerate. The start-up is engineering customized viruses called phages whose job is to seek and destroy the bacteria that gum up all kinds of industrial processes, from paper-making to oil exploration to heating and cooling big buildings.

Anywhere there's water and humidity, explains Novophage CEO Micah Rosenbloom, you get colonies of bacteria that produce what are called "biofilms." "Right now, people use all kinds of chemicals and biocides to eliminate the bacteria, but that isn't very environmentally-friendly," Rosenbloom says. "What we did was to go in and analyze the microbial community — we sequenced its genome — and then we developed a targeted phage that can seek and destroy. It is a predator of bacteria." Biofilms, he notes, tend to make production processes less efficient and more energy-intensive. "They clog up the system," he says, "so it costs you more money to run it, and in the case of paper-making, you sometimes need to stop the production line to deal with the biofilms."

Backing the seven-person company are Flybridge Capital of Boston, Founder Collective of Cambridge, and The Kraft Group. The Kraft family, notably, owns a portfolio of paper and cardboard businesses. Flybridge funded the last start-up with which Rosenbloom was involved, Brontes Technologies, and a Brontes co-founder, Eric Paley, helped start Founder Collective. Early in its life, Brontes was a finalist in MIT's $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. It was acquired by 3M in 2006 for $95 million; the company made new technology that enables dentists to produce better-fitting implants for their patients.

Novophage also participated in MIT's entrepreneurship competition... as well as contests at Harvard Business School, UC Berkeley, the University of Texas, Boston University, Purdue University, and even the University of Nebraska. "I jokingly say that their original business model was winning business plan competitions," says Rosenbloom, who was an advisor to the company before taking on the CEO role earlier this year. "They'd brought in $100,000 or so in prize money, and they were running the company on that."

But once Rosenbloom was in, with his experience at Brontes and 3M, the company started to spark interest from venture capital firms. "It was a really competitive deal," says Jon Karlen of Flybridge. He adds that the company had initially been thinking about designing phages that would fight infections in people, or produce biofuel. "But this is a totally different approach," he says. "They pivoted a while back, mainly because it is very capital-intensive to try to make therapeutics or fuel."

The key scientific team members at Novophage are Michael Koeris, Brett Cheavlier, and Tim Lu. Both Koeris and Chevalier had previously worked at Flagship Ventures; Lu was named one of Technology Review's "Young Innovators Under 35" last year. The company's field is often called "synthetic biology," which entails designing new biological entities to perform specific tasks. Rosenbloom says the company will initially focus on battling biofilms in HVAC systems and paper production.

"I think this is one of those classic challenges of a technology that's applicable to many markets, where you need to pick what to focus on," says Eric Paley at Founder Collective. "This is an alternative to using toxic chemicals. When you talk to people in industry who have to manage these problems, this is a 'holy grail' kind of solution."

Novophage participated in the MassChallenge start-up competition last summer. With this funding round, it becomes one of the best-funded alumni of that program, just about matching RelayRides, a car-sharing start-up that has raised $5.77 million to date.

The company has been operating out of the Venture Development Center, an incubator space at UMass Boston, but plans to move to Boston's Marine Industrial Park in July. Of the neighborhood, Rosenbloom says, "I think it's sort of becoming the new Cambridge, but at one-third the cost of Cambridge."

Here's some trippy video by Hybrid Medical Animation, showing what happens when a phage attacks bacteria:

Novophage will be part of the 12 x 12 mentorship program, designed to help launch new companies in Massachusetts, with Jonathan Kraft serving as a mentor to Rosenbloom.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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