Cambrian's CEO, Austen Heinz, seems to have gotten himself in a little bit of trouble last week by claiming that his company's technology would enable (through making synthetic biology cheaper) sensitive body parts* to smell better. (Mr. Heinz has apparently dramatically recasted the original intent of another startup founder's idea.)
Cambrian’s technology is already being used for far less sensitive, and perhaps more useful, use cases. The company has been doing work printing DNA for the huge pharma company Glaxo Smith Kline. It’s also in talks to formalize a similar business relationship with Roche.
Big pharma companies are asking Cambrian to print various types of DNA that can be used in the drug discovery and testing process.
“We’re helping them make drugs,” Heinz said. For example, Cambrian’s DNA can be used for producing small molecules or for making new screens to find small molecules, Heinz said. “DNA can be used for every part of the process,” Heinz said.
Heinz says that his company also intends to print DNA for customers in the industrial chemical and agricultural industries. He says producing seeds used by consumers is in itself a million-dollar industry.
...You recently described your vision of the future as "Anyone that has a mobile phone and bitcoin can create creatures." What exactly do you mean by this and how do you imagine it coming about?
I mean that anyone with a phone can use genome design software for instance Benchling which runs on a web browser and order genes and DNA to make creatures that are useful to them.
Will people only be able to create new single-cell life or do you imaging the invention of entirely new larger organisms?
Yes i think new multicellular life forms built from a text file are possible but we need more progress in construction of large artificial chromosomes and the ability to print and sequence methylated dna at scale.
How do you plan to stop people from using your technology to create very dangerous microorganisms?
Virtualization. Instead of mailing out DNA we will send the DNA to a virtualization center like Transcriptic, Synthego, or Emerald Cloud Lab. From there they can put thousands of different DNA strands into thousands of cells then make thousands of video files of what those cells are doing and then do image process and machine learning on those videos and send that data back to the user to do the next design.
Not until the final organism is made will it be evaluated for release. This definitely lowers the bar for us for processing orders because as long as the screening is heavily locked down there is little risk of release of malicious code.
...Where do you see the future of the company in 5 and 10 years?"Thousands of video files?" Does this even remotely make sense? Has there been some sort of advance in computer processing of microscopy files that I haven't heard about? (entirely possible) I know that he's predicting the future, speculating, "visioncasting", whatever. Count me highly, highly skeptical.
In the next 5 years we want to be the largest manufacturer of DNA in the world. In 10 years we hope to be closer to our longterm mission of replacing all natural organisms on the planet with better synthetic ones. For instance having made the DNA for say 10% of all plant on the planet surface sounds like a reasonable goal.
What I find really weird about the tech/venture journalism scene is how no one seems to be asking
- Is it true that GSK has purchased DNA from Cambrian?
- Is it true that Cambrian is doing deals with Roche and ThermoFisher? (Somehow, I doubt it -- whose words are we relying on here? Mr. Heinz's, so far as I can tell.)
- He's obviously speculating about the future of synthetic biology -- how far off are his predictions from the median prediction of recognized experts in the field?
UPDATE: Also, here are Cambrian Genomics' patent applications.