Twist Bioscience thinks we can save the world with genetically engineered plants and microbes

Twist Bioscience‘s future rests on a silicon plate the size of a postage stamp. Next year, the San Francisco-based startup plans to release a 6 foot by 6 foot machine that manufactures genes 100 times more efficiently by using the silicon plates, dramatically reducing the cost.

The industry currently relies on PopTart-sized plastic plates dotted with 96 cone-shaped divots. Each plate provides just enough space to manufacture a single gene from strands of DNA and RNA–a process large medical and chemical companies pay big bucks to utilize.

But Twist’s silicon plate is dotted with 96 of the divots, known as wells. Inside each well is another 96 microscopic wells, meaning each larger well can do the job of an entire plastic plate.

A 96 well plate. Photo courtesy of Ritalin / Flickr.

A 96 well plastic plate. Twist is not currently allowing photographs of its silicon plates. Photo courtesy of Ritalin / Flickr.

“What we are building is a manufacturing process where we can capture orders and make large numbers of genes at very high quality, very fast and very low cost,” CEO Emily Leproust said. “What we are doing is not very glamorous. However, it’s very robust.”

Twist already has a working prototype, though it currently only works with a single plate. The startup plans to hire 80 people over the next year to build up the machine’s abilities and develop a software platform that will automate the entire gene making process. It will do so with the $31.1 million it raised in a Series B round and DARPA contract announced last week.

Solving the bottleneck

Leproust co-founded Twist with Bill Banyai and Bill Peck after recognizing that genetics and chemical companies were going through a very long development process in order to settle on a single gene that is useful to their work.

“If you want to build 10,000 different genes, you can’t. The turnaround time is too high. It takes weeks or even months to get the DNA,” Leproust said. “The building is the bottleneck.”

The solution was simple: Dramatically increase the number of genes that can be made at a time and build a machine that can handle the fluid transfers and other manufacturing steps. Twist’s plates are made on the same silicon manufacturing equipment that is used in the electronics industry, so it is readily available and relatively inexpensive.

Twist Biosciences co-founder CEO Emily Leproust. Photo by Signe Brewster.

Twist Biosciences co-founder CEO Emily Leproust. Photo by Signe Brewster.

If Twist succeeds, it could find customers in the chemical, pharmaceutical, diagnostics and agricultural industries. It could help companies genetically engineer microbes that fix ammonia from the air, negating the need for fertilizer in farming. It could boost efforts to use biomass to create plastic instead of relying on oil. Vaccines and personalized medicine would be easier to create. All of these efforts are already underway, but Twist could help make them cheaper.

“It will be a key industry in the 21st century,” Leproust said. “To feed the world, to (create) the energy we need and maintain the health of people, it’s going to have to come from bio. Plants and microbes are going to save the world. That’s where we are going to get our food and our health.”

While Twist is initially centering manufacturing in San Francisco, Leproust said the startup plans to go global. Manufacturing centers in Europe and Asia would further reduce the time it takes for buyers to get their hands on genes. DARPA will also magnify its reach by creating a gene manufacturing center and funding companies that would benefit from it. Leproust said it is meant to boost the industry as a whole, much like DARPA’s past efforts to boost the internet in its early days.

And there is still plenty of room to grow. Twist fabricated its silicon wells with 20-year-old technology. It will be able to push even farther past that 100x efficiency by upgrading to newer equipment.

“I don’t want to do … slightly faster, slightly cheaper with a nicer box. We went for a game changing user experience,” Leproust said. “Next year I want to be even better than we are now, and the next year even better.”