Peter Thiel’s latest investments: better search and cellular nanotechnology

Breakout Labs, an offshoot of PayPal Co-founder Peter Thiel’s eponymous Thiel Foundation, has funded its first two startups of the year: SkyPhrase and Stealth Biosciences. The former is trying to improve data analysis and interaction via better natural language processing, while the other is trying to improve our health by literally sticking straws into our cells.

SkyPhrase is a very early-phase company that, according to its web site, has “made breakthroughs in algorithms that enable computers to understand more complex language with greater precision than has ever been possible.” The goal is to improve search functionality but also to give developers a new, easy way to incorporate natural language processing into their apps. The company was founded by¬†Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Nick Cassimatis.

In January, MIT Technology Review reporter Rachel Metz covered the company and actually reviewed an early version of the technology as applied to searching through tweets and emails. It wasn’t yet trained to do what she wanted with tweets but, she wrote, did a “decent” job searching through emails.¬†Part of what makes it work appears to be its ability to understand conjunctions, even if it doesn’t yet have semantic capabilities: “I could search for, say, ‘e-mails from Bob Loblaw in December and January about recipes with a PDF,’ or ‘e-mails from Bob Loblaw or Tobias Funke about cookies in December,'” Metz explained.

Nanostraws in a cell

Nanostraws in a cell

Breakout Labs’ other new investment, Stealth Biosciences, is a team of Stanford professors, executives and entrepreneurs that has invented a way to get materials into and out of individual cells and to monitor their activity via electric probe. Called Nanostraws and Stealth Electrodes, respectively, the companies two techniques do just what they sound like they do: NanoStraws let doctors inject or extract material from cells in the aims of advancing research and delivering personalized medicine, while the electrodes “automate long-term intracellular electrical recordings of neurons and heart cells.”

Stealth Biosciences, in particular, seems like a heady endeavor, but that’s exactly what Breakout Labs is all about. Launched in 2011, the organization aims to fund projects too early in their lives to attract traditional venture capital. Those funded aren’t giving up large equity stakes in their companies, but are expected to provide a “modest portion” of their revenues back into the program to fund the next generation of Breakout Labs investments. Other investments thus far include Modern meadow — a company trying to create artificial meat using 3-D printers — and AVEtec, a Canadian startup trying to harness the power of tornadoes for good.