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Building Biotech on the Success of Semiconductors: an Interview with CustomArray CEO Brooke Anderson about GenScript’s Recent Acquisition

Anyone working in the cutting-edge field of synthetic biology is inevitably standing on the shoulders of giants. These are the shoulders of past biologists and, increasingly, the shoulders of computer scientists whose innovations are carrying biology to a new level. Such is the case with CustomArray Inc., the DNA microarray manufacturer that was recently acquired by GenScript.

CustomArray’s chips are capable of building the short strands of DNA known as oligos with unrivaled density at up to 90,000 per chip. Their secret is a clever repurposing of semiconductor technology combined with an electrochemical method of synthesizing DNA.

“The limit to the density of our arrays has to do with the limit of semiconductor technology, which is obviously enormously advanced. That’s one of the biggest differences in our approach versus others in array-based synthesis,” said CustomArray CEO Brooke Anderson. Brooke points out that part of the ingenuity of his company’s platform lies in the fact that it draws upon technology that was driven to sophistication by an entirely separate industry.

“We didn’t have to invent semiconductor technology or build it from scratch,” he said. “The semiconductor industry invested billions of dollars to advance their technology over its history, and we get to benefit from it.”

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Now, bioscience provider GenScript will benefit from it as well. The international leader in gene synthesis services bought out CustomArray in the final days of 2017. GenScript plans to integrate CustomArray’s technology into their existing gene synthesis platform and use it to turn out genes at a lower cost.

“Internally we have been putting a lot of effort into improving our platform and looking for opportunities to upgrade our gene synthesis technology,” said Patrick Liu, President of Biosciences at GenScript. “So a few years ago we started to use CustomArray’s technology as a source of oligos. CustomArray has a unique platform that can provide oligos with a very high throughput and a very cost-effective manner.”

High volumes of cheap and accurate oligos are a necessity for GenScript’s operation, which pieces together these short strands of DNA to make larger constructs and genes. Cheaper oligos means cheaper genes, and that’s great news for the synthetic biology industry. The boom in synbio has meant that growth and innovation in downstream applications often outpaces the industry’s ability to supply its own raw material.

Improvements in the cost of writing DNA have lagged behind the plummeting costs of reading DNA that were brought about by the sequencing revolution. Recently, however, chip-based DNA synthesis methods like the one developed by CustomArray have initiated what Brooke and Patrick both believe is just the beginning of a revolution in writing DNA. As Brooke points out, array-based synthesis is uniquely equipped to produce oligos at a cost that is orders of magnitude lower than column-like synthesis technologies. He predicts that this will not only jump-start existing applications that are impeded by the high cost of DNA, but also enable new applications that we can’t yet imagine.

“My feeling is that as this technology proceeds and provides great benefits in terms of the cost and speed of making DNA, applications will come along that we don’t even know of or foresee,” he said. “I just know that it’s going to enable all sorts of applications and revolutions that people are working on, and I’m looking forward to it.”

He added that CustomArray wants to make it easier for researchers to work toward these revolutions by improving and expanding their platform. “If there are products or services that you want and that you think we could provide or perhaps provide in a way that better suits you, let us know. We want to provide what you want to the best of our capability.”

GenScript is equally eager to aid synthetic biologists in achieving their goals not only by supplying the industry with its invaluable raw material of DNA but by providing holistic solutions for bioscience research.

“GenScript is not only a gene synthesis company. We offer a very broad spectrum of services including gene synthesis, protein expression, antibody production, peptide synthesis and biologics discovery and development. We are not only a reagent provider, but also a solution provider. We utilize our proprietary technologies to help our customers design better constructs and libraries to achieve higher expression level and many other desired properties.” Patrick said. “We are looking to work closer and develop partnerships with companies and startups in synthetic biology and offer solutions to the researchers in this community.”

Finally, Jonathan Anzaldo, Managing Director at Coady Diemar Partners, who served as financial advisor to CustomArray, also commented in on the acquisition and its role in synbio at large. “Synthetic biology is an exciting space to be working in today, with new technology and capital both in plentiful supply,” he said. “We had the great pleasure of helping CustomArray secure a world class partner, and look forward to watching their combined efforts play a foundational role in the industry’s future.”

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Christine Stevenson

Christine Stevenson

Christine Stevenson is a freelance science writer and adjunct professor of biology at the Maricopa Community Colleges in the Phoenix metropolitan area. She holds an M.S. in Biology from Arizona State University and has a background in both wet lab research and venture capital consulting. She lives in Tempe, AZ with her dogs, cats, chickens, and goat.

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