Nanobots don’t look like the robots of science fiction novels or Star Wars films. Instead, they’re so tiny you can’t see them at all — they’re often only around 30 nanometers big (whereas a human hair is some 100,000 nanometers wide).

On this scale, there are no nuts and bolts; nanobots are made of materials like metal nanoparticles, DNA strands and proteins, which, when carefully combined by scientists are programmed to do different tasks.

“Comparison to a jet plane is quite adequate.”

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They may be tiny, but nanobots are far from cute. If they simply carried by the bloodstream (in a similar way as oxygen) they use fluids like the glucose in your blood, or the urea in the urinary tract, as fuel to move at pace and they have powerful uses like fighting cancer cells.

“Comparison to a jet plane is quite adequate. Nanobots actually move very fast, up to a few millimeters per second,” says Dr Martin Pumera, who founded Advanced Functional Nanorobots in the Czech Republic in 2017. “Given the size of the robot, it is as if your car had supersonic speed and could take fuel from air.”

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Dr Martin Pumera, who founded Advanced Functional Nanorobots
Dr Martin Pumera, who founded Advanced Functional Nanorobots

Killer nanobot startups

There are now dozens of startups looking to get in on this emerging new medical field.

One of those is Pumeram, which is based in Prague and has already raised €11.5 million to develop rocket, spheroid and even screw-shaped nanobots he hopes will help treat diseases ranging from skin and oral ailments to fertility problems. The startup’s cancer-killing nanobots (which carry drugs directly to mutated cells) have already been successfully tested on mice.

Pumera, who is Head of the Center for Advanced Functional Nanorobots at ICT Prague, is now working towards human trials.

“Imagine a drug carrier that seeks sick cells and when it reaches them, releases the drug, self-destroys and disappears,” says Pumera. “You can use 1000x less [anti-cancer] drug and with very targeted delivery you have minimal side effects and better quality of life of treated patients.”

Going for the gut

Pumera is far from the only founder looking to wage nanobot battles inside your body.

“Our nanobots could be packaged in pills.”

The European nanorobotics market is growing and has steadily caught up with the US, while the global nanorobotics market is expected to hit $8.3bn by 2023.

A sign of the growing spotlight on the sector, Google has even got in on the action, partnering with big pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline in 2016 to form its own nanobot powerhouse, Galvani.

And with increasing hype around gut health and Europe’s microbiome test startups, it’s hardly surprising that other nanobots startups have made this their front line.

Eligo Bioscience founder Xavier Duportet makes nanobots for better gut health. Credit: CC/Flickr/TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin
Eligo Bioscience founder Xavier Duportet makes nanobots for better gut health. Credit: CC/Flickr/TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin

Eligo, a startup founded in France in 2014 has raised $27.4 million to date to put protein-based nanobots in your bowels and is now focused on moving different clinical programs into humans (and closing a Series B round).

Based in Paris, Eligo’s dodecahedron-shaped nanobots are only a mini 40 nanometers wide, but are capable of targeting and killing specific strains of gut bacteria, using a tail to recognise bacteria, connect, and inject their DNA inside.

Eligo’s technology could be used to tackle infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance as well as oncology and inflammatory diseases, all while keeping the ‘good’ parts of the gut microbiome intact, Eligo cofounder Xavier Duportet tells Sifted.

The startup has already proven its technology to be efficient in petri dish testing, and is finalising its tests in mice. It plans to start preclinical trials in early 2021.

“Our nanobots could be packaged in pills to be delivered in the digestive tract and move freely through the tract to bind the target bacteria or used intravenously, nébulised into the lungs, in spray or cream for skin indications,” says Duportet.

Nanovery founder Jerzy Kozyra
Nanovery founder Jerzy Kozyra

Nipping cancer in the bud

Meanwhile, in the UK, Nanovery builds nanobots that are tackling disease from a different approach: the early detection of cancer.

Today early cancer detection typically requires DNA sequencing, a lengthy process which requires a room-sized lab kit (or smaller kits which are extortionately expensive). However Nanovery’s 30 nanometer-long nanobots are designed to “fluoresce” when they come into contact with cancerous mutations – and this illumination can be tracked using a desktop ‘plate reader machine’ that already exists in most clinics and hospitals.

“DNA sequencing takes a body filled with a few hundred thousand books, and reads the entire bookshelf trying to find a spelling mistake,” Nanovery founder Jerzy Kozyra says. “What we’re trying to do is develop a search function that will find the single mutation, and emit a fluorescent signal when that happens.”

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Credit: "Fortune Most Powerful Women 2014" by Fortune Most Powerful Women is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Credit: “Fortune Most Powerful Women 2014” by Fortune Most Powerful Women is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If talk of spotting cancer with shrinking blood tech sends you screeching back to the 2018 car crash of fallen unicorn Theranos, Kozyra is keen to convey that he’s not into the shady business of false “smoke and mirrors” promises. “I would never say we have the technology before we actually have it,” he says.

Still, in some ways Theranos paved the way for all these startups: “Theranos showed how big this problem really is, people know that early detection of cancer is a huge market,” says Kozyra.

“Theranos showed how big this problem really is.”

While Nanovery’s first nanobots were built in shipping containers in north London, the startup has developed as part of this year’s Entrepreneur First cohort, and founder Jerzy Kozyra is now embarking on a new partnership with the Northern Institute of Cancer Research where it plans to start cell line trials.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kozyra is not scared of failure. This is because he’s not building a one-trick pony, he explains: “The worst-case scenario for us is that maybe we won’t be able to tackle cancer. But this technology can be applied to other things like detecting, like parasites or microbes,” he says.

With leaders like Advanced Functional Nanorobotics and Eligo already proving this true, and a rapidly growing nanobot market in Europe, he’s got a point.

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