Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs Funds “Nanostraws” And A Siri-Like Natural Language Processing Startup

Breakout Labs, a Peter Thiel-backed effort that supports startups doing cutting-edge research that might still be too risky to get traditional venture backing, just put capital into another two companies.

They’re funding a Siri-like natural language processing startup called SkyPhrase and another biotech company called Stealth Biosciences, which is creating “nanostraws” that make it easy to insert material into single cells without destroying them.

Breakout Labs, which launched last year, gives up to $350,000 to early-stage companies. The motivation behind Breakout is to bridge that gap between the point when a startup is engaging in risky, more capital-intensive research and when they’ve found something that is commercially viable or that can be made into a product. Breakout is meant to be the first external investor before a startup goes on to find more traditional venture backing.

Lindy Fishburne, senior vice president for investments of the Thiel Foundation, said that several of last year’s companies have gone on to raise angel financing in the $1- to $1.5 million range and two have received additional grants from prestigious institutions like the National Institutes of Health.

She said Breakout funded Stealth Biosciences because its technology could help researchers and doctors avoid using viruses or viral vectors to insert material into cells and treat patients.

“This is actually a scalable way to insert material directly inside of cells using nanotechnology,” Fishburne said. “They’ve developed nano-material that allows them to pierce and get what they need into cells, avoiding the use of viruses or viral vectors, a technique which has other issues.”

Stealth developed nanoscale devices called “Nanostraws” or “Stealth Probes” that can measure and control biological processes at the level of single cells. The two Stanford University professors behind Stealth, Nick Melosh and Craig Garner, say this could be used in personalized medicine, oncology and neuroscience.

The second company Breakout is backing is called Skyphrase. There are two schools toward approaching natural language processing; one relies on a brute force statistical approach and the other relies on logical reasoning and language rules. SkyPhrase says it has a technology that marries the strengths of these two techniques.

They briefly had a Gmail search app for the iPhone last year that could look for content with rich phrases like “emails that Jane sent me during the holidays containing pictures.” But it’s no longer available in the store.