University of Toronto startup Structura Biotechnology builds novel software for cryo-electron microscopy which aims to help scientists understand the structure and function of protein molecules.

“Every biological process that happens inside of the human body or any living organism is carried out by tiny little protein molecules that each have a particular structure – a 3D shape – that interact with one another,” explains Ali Punjani. “Those 3D shapes of the proteins and how they bend, move and connect to create biological processes that make life happen.”  

That’s why 3D visualization of protein molecules is essential to understanding biological processes – everything from how a virus can infect a body, to moving muscles and firing neurons. Until recently, the process of building detailed 3D images of protein structures was a slow and time-consuming task. 

Structura’s groundbreaking software, which uses cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) images to build atomic-scale 3D images of protein structures, is accelerating this key step in drug discovery and life sciences research.  

Drug discovery innovation thrives at U of T

Structura was spun out of the University of Toronto’s department of computer science. Punjani, who is also a U of T PhD candidate, initiated the software development while working in the lab of Prof. David Fleet (MSc 1984, PhD 1991). 

Since its inception, Structura has been able to access vital resources from across the U of T entrepreneurship ecosystem, including the Innovation and Partnerships Office, the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab (DCSIL), the Centre for Entrepreneurship (formerly the Impact Centre) and the University of Toronto Early-Stage Technology (UTEST) program. Structura has also taken advantage of the valuable office space at U of T’s ONRamp co-working facilities and the Banting Institute, centrally located in Toronto’s innovation corridor. 

“Questions about legal, hiring, customer service, pitch decks, sales strategy, all of those things were done early on with the help of campus accelerators,” says Punjani. He also credits UTEST with playing a major role by providing in-kind contributions, initial seed funding and ongoing mentorship and feedback.

Structura took initial seed funding from UTEST and MaRS Innovation in 2017. Since then, they have grown entirely on their own with the support of customers and a global community of researchers that rely on their software.

Structura Bio’s big impact starts at the molecular level

Using machine-learning and computer vision algorithms, Structura has built a core computational technology to power the discovery of the function of protein molecules. 

By using single-particle cryoEM – the breakthrough technology that won the Nobel Prize in 2017 – Structura’s software makes it possible to ingest images of a particular protein from an electron microscope and create an atomic-resolution 3D image of its structure. 

“Coronavirus is a perfect example,” says Punjani. “At the beginning of the pandemic, several teams around the world collaborated to put together a sample of a spike protein of novel coronavirus, synthesize and freeze it and take pictures of it in an electron microscope.” Structura’s software was then used to process those images to model the 3D structure of coronavirus, so scientists could see how the virus works and start to generate ideas for vaccines.

In December 2020, Structura officially launched cryoSPARC Live, the most widely-used platform for real-time processing of cryoEM data. The platform has been deployed at dozens of electron microscopy facilities worldwide and is revolutionizing data processing paradigms for cryoEM.

The company has exciting plans for global partnerships and is looking to grow its team of nine with several new hires. Structura is also committed to re-evaluating its organizational vision, ensuring it aligns with the change its founders are hoping to see in the world: more understanding of how life works and new and better medicines.

More stories

Interested in more stories? Subscribe to our newsletter