‘Don’t want to fuss with this stuff’: Another DNA synthesis startup reels in funding
The way DNA is synthesized has changed relatively little during the biotech revolution of the past four decades. Chemical DNA synthesis has been the predominant method, but it comes with limitations, most notably errors or lesions that damage the DNA after many cycles and cause it to be shorter in length and less accurate.
So, Ansa Biotechnologies wants to shake up the game with a method its founders think can skirt existing hurdles and speed up the process. To do so, the Emeryville, CA startup picked up $68 million in Series A funds Monday to bring its DNA synthesis services to market and scale up its R&D in a field dominated by Twist Bioscience, a $2.5 billion market cap company that’s partnered with the likes of Takeda and Ginkgo Bioworks.
“The promise of what we’re doing, using enzymes, is that all the reactions take place under completely mild, aqueous conditions and the enzymes are exquisitely precise, so it doesn’t damage the DNA as it’s being made,” CEO Daniel Arlow told Endpoints News.
Arlow co-founded Ansa after realizing how long it takes to get DNA for experiments while working on his PhD in the lab of Jay Keasling at UC Berkeley. He compared the process to computer programming; he was a computational biologist prior to grad school. During his grad work, Arlow met his co-founder, CTO Sebastian Palluk, at the Joint BioEnergy Institute.
“If programming on the computer were this slow, if it took a month or more to recompile your code every time you want to make a small change, we would never get anything done. We wouldn’t have the internet and everything built on top of it,” he said.
Since a 2018 paper in Nature Biotechnology, the Ansa team has been working on maturing its technology. The key challenge the startup is trying to work through is getting the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT) enzyme to add one base at a time so they can “synthesize the sequence that we want to make or that the customer wants us to make step by step.”
Arlow declined to disclose when the 35-employee company will launch its services. The company sees its DNA synthesis being applied for helping biopharmas create advanced biologics, cell and gene therapies, antibodies, as well as helping industrial biotechs engineer microbes. Companies in the cultured meat and dairy industries might also eventually use the service, he added.
“We are kind of still bad at engineering biology. In order to get better at engineering biology, we really need to tighten up this loop and go faster because this is essentially a sequential process of figuring out what works,” Arlow said.
The startup thinks it has the “best DNA synthesis method in the world,” Arlow said. The CEO didn’t name names, but Ansa is not alone in the enzymatic DNA synthesis space. DNA Script hauled in a $165 million Series C in October, and another $35 million disclosed in January, for its DNA printer, which was launched in June 2021.
But Ansa isn’t going the synthesizer printer route. The startup wants to go the services route to keep the process centralized.
“The customer wants exactly the sequence that they want, and if we centralize the production of that, we can QC [quality control] the DNA before we send it out the door and make sure that we’re sending them exactly what they want,” Arlow said. “If they have the printer, the burden of QC is on them, and they don’t want to fuss with this stuff.”
By keeping the synthesis in-house, rather than shipping off printers, Ansa is also able to screen orders and customers for potential biosecurity risks, Arlow said. The company has the ability to flag sequences — and not make them — if Ansa thinks it could be hazardous.
“This is a really powerful technology, and it’s really important for us to make sure that it’s used responsibly,” Arlow said.
The new financing brings total funding to date to $82 million. Northpond Ventures led the round with new investors RA Capital, Blue Water Life Science Advisors, Altitude Life Science Advisors, Fiscus Ventures, PEAK6 Strategic Capital, Carbon Silicon, and Codon Capital. Existing backers Mubadala Capital, Humboldt Fund, Fifty Years and Horizons Ventures also took part.
This story has been updated to clarify the timing of DNA Script’s DNA printer launch.