Gen9, Synthetic Biology Startup, Snags $21M from Agilent

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated: 1:15 pm ET] Scientists have been able to order up custom-synthesized genes on demand for quite a few years now. But if synthetic biology is going to move beyond small lab experiments and disrupt whole industries like its proponents say, it needs to get faster, cheaper, and larger-scale. One startup in the field, Gen9, just found itself a big partner to help it pursue that goal.

Cambridge, MA-based Gen9 is announcing today it has secured $21 million through an equity investment and collaboration with Agilent Technologies (NYSE: A), the life sciences toolmaker based in Santa Clara, CA. Before today, Gen9 had stitched together financings worth up to about $16 million in equity and debt, according to a review of regulatory filings since its founding in 2009. Gen9 investors include Draper Fisher Jurvetson, The Kraft Group, and PBM Capital Group. As part of this deal, Agilent will get an equity ownership stake and a board seat, and will combine its own gene synthesis library into Gen9’s technology platform.

“It’s a really exciting time for us,” says Gen9 CEO Kevin Munnelly, a former Life Technologies executive. “This is going to give Gen9 the juice it needs to get to the next level.”

Gen9 was co-founded by Harvard Medical School’s George Church, Stanford University’s Drew Endy and MIT’s Joseph Jacobson. The big idea is to create a cheaper, more accurate, high-volume, automated platform for the synthesis of custom-made genes. That kind of business is supposed to make it fast and easy for scientists to test all kinds of new ideas for making biofuels, pharmaceuticals, or industrial enzymes.

Agilent, a diversified life sciences toolmaker and supplier with more than 20,000 employees, already has some gene synthesis capability. As part of the investment, Gen9 will combine Agilent’s oligonucleotide synthesis library into its own platform, which it calls “BioFab.” The smaller company claims it already manufactures and ships gene fragments that are generally between 500 to 5,000 chemical base pairs in length—meaning it can make almost any single gene a researcher might want to test in the lab.

Church, the co-founder of Gen9 and a longtime collaborator with Agilent, called the partnership “a very big deal for both companies.”

“Agilent makes very high quality (<1 error per kbp) and/or very long (300-mer) oligos at 55K or even 1M per chip. Gen9 assembles these into larger and even more accurate assemblies. Very few (or no?) other companies do this. Near perfect synergy,” Church said via e-mail.

Gen9 isn’t the first mover in the field. GeneArt (part of Life Technologies and now Thermo Fisher Scientific), Blue Heron Biotechnology (part of OriGene), and Genscript are a few names in the field that offer genes synthesized on demand for scientists. San Francisco-based Cambrian Genomics is another aspiring entrant in the business. To be successful, all the companies need to deliver an accurate DNA sequence, and existing players have sought to differentiate from each other on cost, speed, and the amount of volume they can handle.

Harvard’s Church, the well-known scientific entrepreneur, has described some pretty lofty goals for Gen9. “Just as electronics from chips have reshaped virtually every industry, so too will genes. Cellular factories are becoming ubiquitous in the same way that silicon chips are today, and they will be delivering high-value products in every imaginable enterprise,” Church said in a statement last July.

Gen9, which now has 22 employees, shipped its first commercial synthetic genes to customers about a year ago, Munnelly says. The company has “really just started to ramp up” sales, Munnelly says, as it focuses on building up its technology and manufacturing capacity. Its current manufacturing footprint is small—6,500 square feet—but that space alone should be enough to equal its competitors’ combined annual output by the third quarter of this year, Munnelly says. Gen9 currently sells its gene fragments for 20 cents per DNA base, or less with volume discounts, Munnelly says. That compares to an industry average of about 80 cents a base, with some exceptions, he says.

Over the next couple of years, Gen9 hopes to be able to accurately synthesize much larger stretches of DNA that go as long as 100,000 bases, and to drive the cost down to “pennies per base.” When cost and volume get into that territory, Gen9 should be able to enable many more industrial processes, and more ambitious experiments in which scientists can look at many variations of a gene, instead of just one gene at a time, Munnelly says.

“Synthetic DNA constructs have the potential to form the foundation of the next revolution in industrial manufacturing, through biologically constructed machines that can produce materials of high value and complexity. This revolution will only be possible through the ability to routinely synthesize and assemble high-quality, error-free DNA at much greater sequence lengths than are currently available,” said Neil Cook, a vice president and director at Agilent Laboratories, in a statement. “We believe that Gen9 has the correct strategy, technology, team, and IP portfolio to complement Agilent’s innovations in oligo library synthesis and, working together, we will help realize the promise of synthetic biology.”

While Agilent is contributing money and some of its own technology, it will not be using its sales force to pitch the Gen9 products, Munnelly says. “The people at Agilent are world class. We’ve been able to forge a fantastic relationship at the people level and the technology level,” Munnelly says. But he wasn’t ready to give away the whole company to Agilent yet. “We are a wholly independent entity,” he says. “Our sales team will push our products.”