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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Gen9 hopes to be the Intel of custom DNA

Gen9 lab technician Sherri Wang worked on the Gene Printer at the company’s Cambridge facility. It started shipping DNA in March.

Charlie mahoney for the boston globe

Gen9 lab technician Sherri Wang worked on the Gene Printer at the company’s Cambridge facility. It started shipping DNA in March.

Gen9 packs its product into a white styrofoam cooler just about big enough to fit four cans of beer. When the Cambridge firm ships the coolers, they usually contain dry ice, and in the place of brewskis, a plastic tray with dozens of tiny little reservoirs. Floating in the reservoirs are strands of synthetic DNA, designed by Gen9’s customers. The coolers always travel overnight express.

The founders of Gen9 believe that just as cheap, plentiful microchips revolutionized the world we live in, so will cheap, plentiful genetic material. It will lead to breakthrough drugs, new ways of making fuel without oil, and perhaps even biologically based information storage systems. “DNA foundries will be as important to society as microchip foundries — if not more,” says Gen9 co-founder Drew Endy. “We think that getting better at producing DNA is the most important technology opportunity to work on right now.”

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This week the company is launching what it calls the G Prize to get academic researchers and nonprofits exploring the possibilities of customized DNA inserted into living cells. Rather than cash or a new car, the winner gets 500 custom genes, free, from Gen9.

“We want to find out what people would design if you took the cost of the genes out of the equation,” says Gen9 chief executive Kevin Munnelly. (Purchasing a custom-designed gene today can cost thousands of dollars. One of Gen9’s main objectives is to bring that price down.) “What if you created a cell that could go into someone’s body and be an early detector for cancer, sounding an alert once it started seeing mutations?” Gen9 plans to announce winners of this inaugural competition in October.

Gen9, which has 15 employees, is in some sense the reincarnation of another Cambridge company, Codon Devices. (The same trio of founders, including Endy, MIT professor Joe Jacobson, and Harvard professor George Church, started both companies.) Codon raised $44 million in venture capital, but shut its doors in 2009. Gen9 got started that same year.

Like Gen9, Codon had visions of becoming the dominant supplier of custom DNA — the Intel of this emerging industry. But according to Endy, a former MIT professor now on the faculty of Stanford University, it started selling too early. Instead, it should have been perfecting its production process before seeking customers.

“Codon had an amazing sales and marketing team, and they flooded the factory with orders,” Endy says. “So everybody had to go put out fires. Codon did it backwards, and paid a big price for it.”

But after Codon’s board of directors pulled the plug, the trio of academics scrambled to give their idea a second chance. They found new investors, including Weili Dai, cofounder of the Silicon Valley chipmaker Marvell, to help them buy some of the intellectual property from Codon — much of which had been licensed from their own university labs. Gen9 has raised about $10 million so far, and hopes to raise more this fall.

Inside its Kendall Square lab, engineers are putting the finishing touches on what the company has dubbed the “gene printer.” (It’s built on a metal-topped workbench about the size of your desk.) In much the same way the printer head on your inkjet printer moves back and forth across a piece of paper, the gene printer has a moving head that holds a small eyedropper capable of sucking up and squirting fluid. It works in concert with an array of flat, black devices called microarrays that are the shape of a ­microscope slide.

Those microarrays have a network of tiny channels on their surface that turn oligonucleotides — short scraps of nucleic acids — into genes. (Each device can hold 12,000 different oligos.) “We’re mixing tens of thousands of oligos multiple times to grow them,” says Munnelly. Once the genes are done, the eyedropper puts them into the plastic tray, ready to be shipped to the customer in that styrofoam cooler. It’s a manufacturing process that allows Gen9 to make many different kinds of genes simultaneously.

What will all that custom DNA be used for? Research projects like creating a new strain of benign bacteria that can spit out a petroleum substitute, or designing an enzyme for a laundry detergent that works better in cold water. (Yes, there is a government-run database of evil uses for custom DNA, and companies like Gen9 check their incoming orders against it.) “People need more access to DNA to dream up new things that they want to make,” says Endy.

There are still plenty of challenges facing Gen9. Will the demand for DNA explode as the demand for microchips has? “I’m not sure the market for synthetic DNA is as large as people have assumed,” says Rob Carlson, a Seattle-based consultant and author of the recent book “Biology is Technology.’’ “If you’re Gen9, you’re thinking that people will order lots of versions of the DNA they’re trying to build, with some small changes. But that’s still a question.”

And Gen9, which started shipping DNA in March, is competing with companies like Integrated DNA Technologies, DNA 2.0, and GenScript. Jason Kelly of Ginkgo BioWorks, a Boston bioengineering start-up, says that in addition to cost, the players in this new market will compete on turn-around time (today, it can be several weeks) and accuracy.

Within the company’s 6,500 square feet of office, research, and production space, Munnelly says that Gen9 will have the ability to satisfy about half the world’s demand for customized DNA this year. Next year, the company will be able to meet all of it — and demand is growing at about 25 percent each year, he says. The number of assembly-line workers that Gen9 will need for all that DNA production? Ten to 12, he estimates.

At one point in its history, the factories of Kendall Square produced hoses, soap, and steam boilers. Now, they make custom genes.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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