The biotech startup behind the petri dish of brain cells that played Pong just raised $15 million

- April 19, 2023 2 MIN READ
Hong Weng Chong
Cortical Lab founder Hong Weng Chong
Synthetic biology startup Cortical Labs, which is developing a new kind of artificial intelligence using human brain cells, has raised USD$10 million (A$15m).

The Melbourne biotech rose to prominence in October last year when it combined 800,000 brain cells with a computer chip to learn to play the video gam Pong. The project was dubbed DishBrain. The biological computing integrates lab-cultivated neurons from human stem cells with its Biological Intelligence Operating System (biOS) in a mixture of hard silicon and soft tissue.

The round was led by Hong Kong VC Horizons Ventures with support from local fund Blackbird Ventures, LifeX Ventures, Radar Ventures and CIA-backed VC In-Q-Tel.

Hong Kong-based Jonathan Tam from Horizons will join the board.

The capital will see the company accelerate the commercialisation of its Biological Intelligence Operating System (biOS) and fulfil pre-orders.

Cortical Labs CEO and founder Hon Weng Chong believes that human neurons are a new and untapped resource with the potential to be far better than any digital AI model and DishBrain is capable of growing, adapting, and learning at a faster rate than silicon-based AI, as well as using less energy.

“The possibilities that a hybridised AI meets synthetic biology model can unlock are limitless, accelerating the possibilities of digital AI in a more powerful and more sustainable way,” he said.

“Our technology will shape and drive the next frontier of AI, and with this new round of capital, we are thrilled to keep accelerating research and development to bring the DishBrain to market this year.”

Jonathan Tam from Horizons Ventures said part of the “mind-blowing” approach to AI taken by Cortical Labs’ groundbreaking technology is the lower energy needs to deliver powerful computing.

“Ultimately, by being able to use these systems to better understand, and eventually harness, how neurons display intelligence, it will open up a plethora of applications, including a revolution in personalised medicine and disease detection'” he said.

The other side of the startup’s work is the ability to develop and test new drugs and therapies for the central nervous system while also being able to check for cognitive side effects, which has not been possible until now. The Cortical Labs 1 (CL1) system will enable in-vitro cognitive testing for the life-sciences industry and the company hopes it will become an R&D platform for researchers from non-biological fields such as AI and engineering.

Cortical Labs has partnered with Cambridge, UK biotech company Bit.Bio for the research and commercialisation of the CL1 along with their academic partners at the Organoid Intelligence alliance spearheaded by Johns Hopkins University.

Bit.Bio founder and CEO Dr Mark Kotter said the Cortical Lab technology delivers a paradigm shift to assess the computational prowess of human neurons.

“Psychiatric and neurological conditions impact the computational fabric of our minds, yet traditional neuroscience delves into electrophysiology, cell biology, and genetics,” he said.

In-Q-Tel International managing director Clayton Williams said the startup has taken a new approach to solving computing challenges of the future.

“The use of organoid intelligence is a step beyond artificial intelligence, one that leverages efficiencies developed over time spans of hundreds of millions of years,” he said.

Radar Ventures managing partner Atlanta Daniels, said the technology will help to progress almost every industry on the planet.

“We’re particularly excited by the potential to personalise and better manage the cognitive effects of life altering treatments like chemotherapy and antidepressants, and cognitive conditions like dementia,” she said.