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50 Most Admired Companies of The Year 2019

A One-Stop Solution for Automated, Programmable Cell Culture: Thrive Bioscience


Thrive Bioscience, located in the Boston, Massachusetts area, is commercializing a previously unavailable suite of automated, non-microbial cell culture instruments to meet the needs of the large research, drug discovery, drug development and regenerative medicine markets.

The company has senior executives with experience starting at early stages, in many life sciences companies including Cytyc, Exact Sciences, and Rosetta In Pharmatics. Thrive’s Board of Directors consists of some of the most experienced individuals in cell culture and laboratory products. Thrive’s Board Chairman was previously President of one of the largest laboratory groups in the world at Thermo Fisher Scientific. In addition, Brock Reeve, Executive Director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute is a Board Member and a customer. And Board Member Michael Finney, Ph.D. is a well-respected founder of several life sciences companies, now turned full-time investor.

In Conversation with Farb-Horch, CEO and Co-founder of Thrive Bioscience

Why was the company set up?

Alan Blanchard, Ph.D., Thrive’s Chief Scientific Officer and I co-founded Thrive in the Boston area five years ago to automate a neglected but critically important area of life sciences – manual cell culture and stem cell culture. Even though cell culture is an $18 billion per year market and key to bio-medical research, it is performed manually, in poorly controlled environments, with little data and little documentation. It is unusual to find major markets that are truly underserved like cell culture. Good science needs good cells and that is rarely available now. Not starting with good cells is at the root cause of many of the failures in drug development.

How is cell culture performed now?

Cells for research and even for cell therapies are grown similarly to the way they were grown 65 years ago, with little innovation, with a lack of documentation and variability of environments. The current standard practice in cell culture is that researchers take the cells out of the incubator, spend hours per day looking at tens of millions of cells under a microscope and then researchers replace them in the incubator, but with almost no data or images retained.

Lack of Data

Sadly, researchers know very little about the history and condition of these very important cells that they are studying in order to cure major diseases. Most “apps” on our phones know far more about its users than researchers know about cells cultured in labs around the world. Mislabeling rates alone have been found to regularly be above 14%. What does this mean? This means that researchers may think they are studying liver cells when they are actually studying kidney cells. This is a real embarrassment to the field and one that researchers do not like to discuss, but funders of research, such as government agencies and drug companies, are shining a light on these serious problems.

Variability of Environment

With cell culture, we are trying to reproduce the natural environments cells have in our bodies, but in the lab. The scientific community does a terrible job at reproducing these cellular environments. Cells are currently grown in “dumb” incubators that only control gases and temperatures and not important things such as pH and nutrients. In order to even look at the cells or run experiments on them, they are moved across many environments, resulting in stress, contamination and a lack of documentation. The very process of looking at them under a microscope changes the cells.

What are the consequences of currently performed manual cell culture?

Problems in cell culture lead to incorrect conclusions from experiments and are at the root cause of many failures in drug development. The impact of poorly controlled cell culture processes is high rates of mislabeling and contamination and significant variability in the condition of the cells being studied from lab to lab and even over time in the same lab. This variability in cell samples makes it extremely difficult to compare results from an experiment to experiment and lab to lab.

The lack of data and lack of automation in cell culture labs is one of the principal causes of the widely recognized reproducibility crisis. Reproducibility is the cornerstone of science. Amgen over a 10-year period and with up to 100 scientists, tried to reproduce 53 landmark oncology studies and was only able to reproduce six of them or 11%. Reproducibility is important because science is based on accumulated knowledge. Sadly, much of the irreproducible data is only caught later in clinical trials.

Results from different researchers or even the same researcher at different points in time are currently often not comparable or consistent because the input, the cells, varies so much. So even though the industry spends billions of dollars per year on advanced instrumentation and assays, we have the same problem in biology research that the software industry described as “garbage in, garbage out”.

How do your instruments solve these problems?

Thrive’s solution to these problems is a family of products that provides researchers with reproducible data, analytics, documentation, and automation of their protocols. To accomplish these solutions requires integrating the best practices in biology, software development and many types of engineering, such as robotics, fluidics and optics. Providing cross-functional solutions are difficult but very powerful and sometimes the only way.

Our first product, The CellAssist, is in beta testing now in leading institutions such as the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Stanford University Stem Cell Core. The CellAssist has a list price of $75,000 and captures 1,000’s of images and metrics to improve cell culture. It sits right next to the incubator, and it images and analyzes the cells and provides the researcher with instructions to increase quality and a database that they can review.

We call the CellAssist, “Cell Metrics in a Box”. With the CellAssist, when an experiment does not work as planned, a researcher can now go back and understand why. This is key to good science.

Farb-Horch CEO and Co-founder of Thrive Bioscience

Mr. Farb-Horch is CEO and Co-founder of Thrive Bioscience, commercializing instruments for the automation of cell culture. He is Co-founder and Board Member of Autoimmunity BioSolutions, spun-out of University of Texas Medical School and serves on the Board of North Shore InnoVentures, a business incubator in Beverly, MA. Previously he served on the Boards of FICO (NYSE), RedwoodTrust (NYSE), HNC Software (acquired by FICO), Retek Systems (acquired by Oracle) and Saf-T-Med (acquired by Becton Dickinson). He has served in senior management positions, including as President, Indevus Pharmaceuticals (acquired by Endo), VP of Corporate Development, Cytyc (acquired by Hologic) and Executive Director, Trust for Science & Technology, SanJuan.

“Thrive’s innovative systems provide reproducible protocols, scalable cell propagation, analytics and complete process history documentation with supporting images, all without the cells leaving the system’s tightly controlled environment.”