The Biohacker Startup that Wants to Take Biotech Back from Corporations

Synbiota wants more people to engineer DNA in their garages.

Mar 14 2015, 12:00pm

Fluorescent microbes that could be grown with a DNA Tinker Studio (Image: Indiegogo/Synbiota)

Imagine if assembling DNA for a customized biological organism was as simple as putting together a LEGO kit.

This is the vision of Synbiota, a Canada-based startup that launched an Indiegogo cam​paign this week for its DIY biotech inventor's kit called the DNA Tinker Studio. The company is asking for $10,000 and has raised close to $2,500 at the time of this writing.

While crowdfunded projects are never guaranteed of success—the cooler the project's claims, it seems, the more likely it is to fail—Synbiota has some experience with this. This is the latest venture for the company, which has launched three other DIY biotech kits in the past.

One, called Rainbow Factory, allows users to genetically engineer a microorganism to produce various color pigments. Another $395 kit allows users to build and grow microbes that turn simple sugar into Violacein, an anti-cancer agent that sells for $350 million per kilo. Dickie said one student has already produced more than $90,000 worth of Violacein in his own lab. 

An image from Rainbow Factory, a Synbiota kit that allows users to engineer E. coli bacteria turn different colors. (Image: S​ynbiota)

With these three successful projects underway, Synbiota has launched the DNA Tinker Studio, its most ambitious and most advanced kit so far.

"This new kit allows whoever buys it to design their own project, so instead of just making what we say, they can have their own ideas and invent it themselves," Connor Dickie, the company's CEO, told Motherboard. "It's the difference between us giving someone a book and having them read it versus someone writing a book for us."

"Right now, biotech is all coming from big corporations that keep secrets."

The kit includes web-based DNA design software to allow customers to design the biological invention on a web browser, build it with real DNA using the kit, and then share the project with people around the world and look at other projects for inspiration.

"With this kit, you don't need a PhD or a big expensive traditional lab to be able to assemble real pieces of DNA and basically design a custom organism that can do cool and useful stuff," he said. "Right now, biotech is all coming from big corporations that keep secrets. We want to get people working together sharing their ideas, and successes and failures."

Items included in the DNA Tinker Studio Kit (Image: YouTube/Synbiota)

Dickie said the project is inspired by the growing global community of biohackers, people who experiment in the field outside traditional lab settings but are limited in the projects they can pursue. He wants to expand the realm of biotech to people in fields outside of science and research.

"We think if these people can get access to the right kinds of tools at the right price, it's going to benefit the whole world," he said. "If we make this accessible enough artists and designers can use the technology and think of their own ideas, I guarantee what they come up with will be different from what Pfizer and other major companies do."

An illustration of a "living thermometer" that tells you the temperature by smell, a project Synbiota says can be built by its DNA Tinker Studio kit. (Image: Indiegogo/Synbiota)

Dickie likened biotech today to the computer industry in the 50s and 60s, when only the military had access to the expensive models of computers that existed at the time. Similarly, he said, today only the military and large companies like Monsanto are working in biotech. With these new projects, Synbiota hopes to create a major shift.

"It's super disruptive, super powerful and it's the first time anything like this has happened before," he said. "This is the first time ever anyone with a credit card can get their hands on this technology and start inventing. We think it's going to be bigger than the computer revolution because biotech is everything that is living. This technology can work in big cities or on very small scale in developing nations."

He says as far as he knows, Synbiota has the only crowd-funded campaigns distributing relatively affordable biotech kits like this.

"A lot of stuff is coming together to make this happen," he said. "It's not just a dream, it's a reality."

At $995, the DNA Tinker Studio certainly isn't cheap, but it's the most accessible the power of synthetic biology has ever been.