For the past three years, Cambridge, MA-based Gen9 has been quietly building something that its founders believe has been sorely lacking in biotech: an affordable and efficient way to synthesize genes on a massive scale. Those founders are pioneers in the field of synthetic biology: Joseph Jacobson, an MIT professor and specialist in the field of using biology to create machines; George Church, genetics professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the original developers of genomic sequencing tools; and Drew Endy, a Stanford faculty member who specializes in bioengineering.
Now Gen9 is starting to market its founders’ creation, a technology called BioFab, which is designed to generate tens of thousands of different. synthetic gene fragments per year. Gen9 is marketing its capabilities to companies that use genes to create engineered cells, which in turn make products such as chemicals or biologic materials. Gen9’s target customer base includes pharmaceutical companies, biofuels producers, agricultural firms, and enzyme makers.
In preparation for the rollout, Gen9 expanded its senior leadership team last week, elevating chief business officer Kevin Munnelly to CEO and bringing on Martin Goldberg, previously of Santa Clara, CA-based Affymetrix, as COO. The company also plans to raise a Series C this fall. According to SEC documents, Gen9 has raised more than $7 million in equity and debt so far. Its investors include Draper Fisher Jurvetson, PBM Capital, and unnamed individuals.
There are dozens of companies jumping into the field of gene manufacturing, including Integrated DNA Technologies of Coralville, Iowa, DNA 2.0 of Menlo Park, CA, and the rapidly expanding Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies. Munnelly, who previously worked in a genomics-solutions unit of Life Technologies, says he was drawn to Gen9 last November by its ability to apply principals of large-scale industrial manufacturing to synthetic biology. “I’m very passionate about the effect synthetic biology can have on the research community and on human health,” Munnelly says. “This was the first time I had seen a company with a game-changing approach.”
That approach, Munnelly says, “allows us to build genes faster, better, cheaper.” Say a company wants to string together different genetic fragments to produce an enzyme with special characteristics. Normally that company would have to synthesize each gene construct one at a time—an expensive and very slow process. Gen9 transform designs from customers into DNA constructs it calls GeneBits, using proprietary gene-synthesizing technologies that give it manufacturing capacity that’s similar to “fabs”—the automated facilities used to produce silicon chips. Munnelly says that Gen9’s 6,500-square-foot fabrication facility in Cambridge will have the capacity to produce genes at a rate equivalent to at least half of what all its competitors combined can make today.
Gen9 began marketing its offerings to select customers in March, Munnelly says. He declines to disclose the company’s customers, except to say it’s a “mix from various industries.”
Gen9’s founding team is certainly well known in the world of genomics. George Church, for example, helped develop gene sequencing and helped launch the Human Genome Project. He has also had a hand in a number of genomics-technology startups, including Ion Torrent Systems, which was bought by Life Technologies in 2010, and Warp Drive Bio, a Cambridge, MA-based company that started up in January with $125 million from Third Rock and French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, among others. (Church also serves as one of our Xconomists.)
Munnelly says Gen9 is seeking additional funding to scale up its internal operations and build its product-development staff. “We’ll establish a commercial infrastructure so we can more broadly market this technology to the community,” he says. He adds that the company will continue to reveal elements of its product offerings in the coming weeks. “We’re just coming out of stealth mode right now. Stay tuned.”
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