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SynBioBeta Interviews Twist Bioscience CEO Emily Leproust

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Twist Bioscience may not have many employees (21 today) and may not offer commercial products just yet, but a cool $26 million Series B funding announced yesterday could quickly change that for the better. The next-generation DNA synthesis company believes it has game-changing technology that will significantly reduce bottlenecks in the “design, build, test” cycle for synthetic biology. Investors tend to agree: Twist has raised $40.2 million — including a $5.1 million DARPA contract — in just 10 months, or about $92 per minute of existence.

The silicon-based DNA synthesis platform could have profound consequences for the oligo and gene markets and forever change the way researchers think about ordering genes. Given the potential, I thought it would be a good idea to sit down with Twist CEO Emily Leproust to discuss the recent funding and latest commercialization plans. The next 18 months could bring big changes to the DNA synthesis market.

What will be the primary use for the funding?

We’ve worked hard in the past 10 months to put a leadership and development team in place and to create a working prototype of our 10,000-well silicon platform. The goal in the next 18 month is to automate, scale, and commercialize our DNA synthesis platform. That will include hiring about 80 new employees in that time frame.

How awesome is the DARPA contract?

The DARPA funding is granted under the $110 million Living Foundries: 1,000 Molecules Program, which seeks to build a scalable, integrated, and rapid design and prototyping infrastructure for engineering biology.  Twist is operating on the “build” part of the design cycle and the contract length of two years is fully aligned with our mission and commercialization plan.

How does Twist’s silicon-based approach differ from other DNA synthesis platforms?

DNA synthesis platforms can be broken down into three categories. In the first category, oligos are synthesized on surface-area maximizing beads. This produces large volumes of your targeted DNA, but you’re stuck disposing most of it. So, you’re throwing away much of the cost of your platform.

In the second category, oligos are manufactured cheaply in micro-arrays. This produces small quantities of your targeted DNA, which must then be depooled and amplified in 96-well plates. Relying on plastic tubes for your enzymatic work comes with significant drawbacks, such as lengthening the time of production, limiting scaling efforts to one gene at a time, and the fact that plastic isn’t a great conductor of heat. There are few options to order 10,000 genes in this way.

Twist resides in the third category. Our silicon chip platform has the footprint of a 96-well plate (size of two iPhones put together) with just the right amount of targeted DNA. So, we don’t throw away large volumes of oligos and we aren’t limited by plastic. In fact, I’ve banned plastic micro-well tubes from our platform. The advantage of our approach is that one silicon platform can be used for both the manufacturing of oligos and their rapid assembly into genetic constructs. We could manufacture and ship 10,000 genes in a matter of days.

What DNA costs do you foresee such technology enabling?

(I didn’t expect to get an answer.) Pricing will be finalized when the platform launches in early 2015. However, not all orders are created equally. I’ve spoken to numerous researchers who have told me, “I need 10,000 genes, but I need to wait two months to get them. I’d pay more to get them sooner.” Twist could serve these customers with a rapid turnaround.

But how many people could possibly need 10,000 genes? That has to be a small market today, right?

Well, you have to ask yourself what the limiting factor is for researchers. Do they not place large orders for genes because they don’t have enough ideas, or because they don’t have the budget for such orders and no company to fill them? It’s probably the latter.

What is the initial capacity?

(I didn’t expect to get an answer for this question, either.) This will also be finalized when the platform launches. However, Twist does not expect to be capacity constrained and will build to meet demand primarily by offering game-changing throughput. Researchers could get 10,000 genes in a few days, not months. It will be significantly larger than what’s available today.

Is the industry excited for Twist’s platform?

When I speak to people in the industry today, I hear a lot of frustration with the current state of DNA synthesis. “It takes too long and it’s too expensive” is usually the common theme. From that viewpoint, Twist is commercializing a technology that researchers need and want. We want to make the science easier to do.

What’s challenges do you foresee encountering in the next 18 months?

Twist has demonstrated its prototype and has the funding to commercialize its technology; now it needs the people that will make it happen. I’ve always said that the value of a company rests in the people it has and the machines they build. We want the best people in research and development and the best people in marketing. You always want the best people on your team, but this will be challenging to do in the next 18 months.

The takeaway

Although I didn’t bring it up in the interview, there’s a takeaway from Twist for all startups. The company’s Chief Operating Officer, Bill Banyai, has successfully been awarded multiple multi-million dollar DARPA grants “for the development of innovative technologies based on silicon micro machining.” You can bet he was instrumental in developing the platform and securing the DARPA contract. So if you’re trying to build a team and pioneer a novel technology, try to find the Bill in your field.

There’s a lot of frustration among researchers today when it comes to sourcing DNA. Twist believes it possesses a game-changing technology that will improve the cost and turnaround of DNA synthesis, with higher quality and throughput. It certainly has the funding to do so. Now, it simply needs to put its head down and focus on automating and scaling its platform in the next 18 months.


Maxx Chatsko

I help the world invest better by breaking down complex companies and technology platforms into language anyone can understand.

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