Daniel Arlow has spent the last eighteen years studying genomics and synthetic biology. The arc of his career has taken the first-time founder of the new startup Ansa Biotechnologies from MIT to the famous Keasling Lab at the University of California at Berkeley and now to the world of startups.
Now, Arlow is ready to tell the world what he’s been working on at Ansa, which is nothing less than the delivery of the next generation of synthetic DNA manufacturing.
His company is bringing to market a new process for making DNA that Arlow said is faster and more accurate than existing technologies.
“DNA read, write, and edit are the core pillars of synthetic biology,” said Seth Bannon, a founding partner at the frontier investment firm Fifty Years, and an investor in Ansa’s recent $7.9 million investment round. “Currently the ability to write DNA is the main bottleneck in the synthetic biology industry. By enabling faster, longer, and higher quality DNA synthesis with their fully enzymatic process, Ansa will help accelerate the entire synthetic biology industry.”
Arlow likens the state of the industry now to the early days of programming. “If it took three weeks to compile your code or recompile your code to make a simple change you could never make any progress in developing software for the computer,” Arlow said. And that’s the state for programmable biology these days.
“It took a really long time to test your idea after it was designed. It forces you to plan things out much more carefully and to be less spontaneous and less agile,” he said.
Using Ansa, companies can have DNA made based on their specific requirements at a speed and scale that Arlow said other companies in the market can’t match.
Currently, DNA molecules are made using a thirty year-old chemical method that has limitations on the length of molecules that can be made. By contrast, Ansa’s biologically inspired DNA synthesis method means that the company can make long molecules directly, without the risk of errors that can result from patching pieces of genetic material together.
The company has developed an enzyme that basically adds bases to a DNA molecule. The company basically has a cut and paste function that serves to unblock DNA and then allows another base to be attached.
It’s also important to note that Arlow’s company is doing synthesis as a service rather than selling bioprinters that can enable any researcher to make their own DNA.
“One of the reasons we’re developing our business as a DNA synthesis service… as opposed to making a printer… is because that gives us a much greater ability to vet orders for biosecurity risk before we manufacture them,” Arlow said.
Other companies like DNA Script (from France) and Nuclera (a Cambridge, UK-based company) are going to market with bioprinters that they’re selling directly to research labs, according to Arlow.
All of these businesses are the next iteration of companies like Twist Bioscience, that are manufacturing DNA to power the synthetic biology revolution (something that TechCrunch Disrupt attendees have been hearing a lot about).
Ansa hasn’t shipped any DNA yet, but the company will soon be taking orders to begin competing in a market that Arlow estimates is over $1 billion today and is growing quite rapidly.
“Writing is really the bottleneck,” Arlow said. “The business we’re in is selling to R&D.. the faster we can crank out the DNA the better it is. Part of the reason why we’re still pretty bad at engineering biology is because it takes so long to build a new design. My hope is by building more we’ll get better at designing because we’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t work.”