PTN interviews Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics:
Cambrian Genomics is a biotech hardware startup developing the first laser printing systems for DNA. Researchers in academia and industry presently order or clone over a billion dollars of DNA per year. Cambrian Genomics plans to deliver high quality sequence verified DNA to buyers in this massivley expanding worldwide market.
In this exclusive interview With Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics, PlanetTech News digs deeper into the future of synthetic biology:
Can you briefly introduce Cambrian Genomics, explain how the company got started, what was the background to the team and the original idea?
Originally I raised money to start the iGEM internation genetically engineered machines program at Duke when i was 21-22. Although we were able to do several projects i was frustrated by the pace of development. Going from idea to weakly working prototype could take over a year. Even though the design of that prototype might only take a few hours. Worse than that intelligence played almost no role in the speed of development. Being smart didnt matter since building (DNA cloning and assembly) was boring mindless work.
I decided to leave the US and leave my field to study EECS to learn how I could build a machine that would make DNA cheaply. My initial thoughts was that the machine would use microfluidics to increase scale, but it wasn't until I published a few papers in microfluidics that I began to see the limits in the technology. It's difficult to get things in and out of the chip. It's difficult to do multiple operations on the chip due to cross contamination. Eventually I discovered DNA laser printing which had the benefits of microfluidics, i.e scale, with all the advantages of doing things off chip: i.e easy access and no cross contamination. I presented this work at the synthetic biology 5.0 conference in stanford in june of 2011 and the rest is history.
Can you explain what exactly is "laser printing of DNA"?
DNA laser printing is laser catapulting of clonal DNA sequencing beads i.e metal beads, each metal bead covered in hundreds of thousands of identical copies of DNA. Essentially we create an explosion on the surface of the glass that projects our bead and associated dna into a tube where we can amplify and purify it for downstream use.
Can you tell us a little about the process you went through to get investment?
When I came to the US from Seoul National University in korea where i was doing my phd, I had no connections, no resources and a few hundred dollars to my name. However, a few months earlier in june 2011 i attended a conference at Stanford and met an attendee, Mark Hamalainen, who worked at a local biotech company who became interested in seeing my work become a company and possibly investing.
When I came back to the Bay Area he invested and brought a few of his friends from SpaceX in on the deal. It was only $40k, though it was nearly the combined life savings of my first investors, but it gave me the breathing room to raise additional funds. My next check came from Jacquline Monash who'd been a benefactor of Singularity University. It was 250k and allowed me to buy the capital equipment i.e. The laser system to make thing seem real enough for a investors to come in more easily.
What you regard as your most important achievements to date?
The most important achievement to date was when we printed and assembled our first gene. Since then the team has made several inventions and enormous strides scaling the technology. But it was important to show that the fundamentals of the technology worked. That not only could we eject oligonucleotides but that we could produce functional error free dna that could be assembled to make real working genes.
What were the biggest challenges in making laser printing of DNA work? How did you overcome them?
Biggest challenges were overcoming our own stupidity, or perhaps because we failed to accept our own stupidity. When doing a company it's important to hire people and buy machines that already have done what you want them to do. As a company you want to innovate as little as possible and integrate people and machines that either already do what you need or do something very close to what you need. As a company you dont have the luxury of a 5-10 year development window.
What is your next big goal?
To become the largest seller of sequence verified DNA in the world.
You recently described your vision of the future as "Anyone that has a mobile phone and bitcoin can create creatures." What exactly do you mean by this and how do you imagine it coming about?
I mean that anyone with a phone can use genome design software for instance Benchling which runs on a web browser and order genes and DNA to make creatures that are useful to them.
Will people only be able to create new single-cell life or do you imaging the invention of entirely new larger organisms?
Yes i think new multicellular life forms built from a text file are possible but we need more progress in construction of large artificial chromosomes and the ability to print and sequence methylated dna at scale.
How do you plan to stop people from using your technology to create very dangerous microorganisms?
Virtualization. Instead of mailing out DNA we will send the DNA to a virtualization center like Transcriptic, Synthego, or Emerald Cloud Lab. From there they can put thousands of different DNA strands into thousands of cells then make thousands of video files of what those cells are doing and then do image process and machine learning on those videos and send that data back to the user to do the next design.
Not until the final organism is made will it be evaluated for release. This definitely lowers the bar for us for processing orders because as long as the screening is heavily locked down there is little risk of release of malicious code.
Can you explain and outline the opportunities and challenges you encountered in the "Glowing plant project"?
The opportunities in plant engineering range from dealing with climate change by using plants to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Taking deserts and converting them to rain forrest by allowing plants to use salt water and culturing rain causing bacteria to eject into the atmosphere. We could also think about using plants to mine the oceans for precious metals and rare earth elements.
With respect to the challenges of glowing plants the bottlenecks are changing. Previously, getting a few genes would cost more than a car and building large constructs even if you could afford them would take several months. Now the bottlenecks are moving towards transfecting plants and scale and the time needed to wait to do the screen but these problems can be solved with robotics and doing all the experiments in parallel.
Can you explain and describe your vision for "creature creators"?
Basically anyone can make a consumer biotech company. Shoot a video. Lauch a crowdfunding campaign and use the funds to build your dream. Of course it has to be a product people actually want.
Where do you see the future of the company in 5 and 10 years?
In the next 5 years we want to be the largest manufacturer of DNA in the world. In 10 years we hope to be closer to our longterm mission of replacing all natural organisms on the planet with better synthetic ones. For instance having made the DNA for say 10% of all plant on the planet surface sounds like a reasonable goal.
Where do you see the field of synthetic biology in 10 years?
The use of synthetic DNA will extend to many forms of life including humans.
You started at Singularity University (SU). What is life like being incubated at SU Labs? How did you transition from the Graduate Studies Program to being incubated in SU Labs?
Connection to early investment was key. What SU is doing by educating wealthy people and corporations is really important. Early stage science investing needs a kick. Often times a few 100k is enough to get the ball rolling.