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SGI-DNA Sees Deal With Belgium's VIB as Springboard to Building European Synthetic Genomics Business

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – SGI-DNA's recent placement of its flagship BioXp 3200 DNA printer with Belgian life sciences research institute VIB could signal further growth of the European synthetic genomics market.

SGI-DNA President Nathan Wood said that the firm has already placed another system with a European partner since announcing the deal with VIB earlier this month, alongside a similar placement with a client in China, activity that shows the La Jolla, California-based firm is moving beyond its US home market into other regions that promise growth for synthetic genomics providers.

Though the firm has disclosed the agreement with Ghent-based VIB, Wood declined to name the other two customers.

"Europe is a very large market for synthetic biology and we see particular promise in Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland, and the UK," Wood said. "From our perspective, research is advancing in these areas as the governments invest in research into synthetic biology," he said. "We look forward to continuing to expand our presence there."

Wood underscored that unlike other segments of the life science research market, where European sales might account for a third of overall sales, in synthetic genomics, the split is closer to 50-50 between North America and Europe. "If we cover North America and Europe, we cover the majority of the market," he said. "The European market, therefore, is fairly substantial."

As far as the synthetic biology market is concerned, SGI-DNA is an interesting player. A wholly owned subsidiary of San Diego-based Synthetic Genomics, the four-year-old company offers a suite of genomic services, including whole genome sequencing, sequencing library design, and other bioinformatics services.

What sets it apart from other providers, though, is its BioXp 3200 system, a benchtop instrument that the company claims on its website can be used to create "genes, genetic elements, and molecular tools" starting with electronically transmitted sequence data, therefore "improving the workflow" for protein production, antibody library generation, and cell engineering.

The system supports a number of applications, including BioXp Tiles, which enables users to generate as many as 32 linear DNA fragments up to 1.8 kilobases in length from custom-designed oligo pools; BioXp Cloning, which supports the generation of up to 32 clones overnight; and BioXp NGS Library Construction, enabling automated plasmid or genomic DNA preparation for use in next-generation sequencing.

The company has positioned its benchtop system as an alternative for customers who to date have relied on ordering DNA from a provider such as Genscript, Integrated DNA Technologies, or Twist Bioscience, or have instead invested in developing their own production facilities, such as the University of Edinburgh's Edinburgh Genome Foundry, all of which compete with SGI-DNA in the European market.

A representative for San Francisco-based Twist said the DNA synthesis company has shipped more than 100,000 unique clonal genes since it initiated its beta program last year, with a "significant portion of those genes going to European customers." According to the representative, demand in Europe has been coming from "pharma, biotech, agbiotech, and academia primarily." 

Wood said SGI-DNA first introduced the BioXp via early access in 2015, and had a full North American launch in 2016, where the majority of its placements have been to date. He noted that while BioXp systems are customized to fit the research needs of SGI-DNA's customers, and as a result the pricing varies, the list price for its base model is approximately $60,000, along with upgrades that range in price from $5,000 to $10,000 each for applications such as NGS library preparation.

Although Wood did not discuss the terms of the deal with VIB, investing in the system made sense to Halina Novak, manager of the institute's Technology Watch program, which evaluates technology investments and supplies the funds to obtain instruments in fields such as synthetic biology, CRISPR, and single-cell analysis.

"As VIB is such a large institute, we are working with many of the synthetic DNA providers," Novak said, who declined to name specific companies. She noted that each synthetic DNA company that VIB works with applies different business models to offer value to its customers, while offering different services and products. "For example, some companies require that a minimum amount of DNA must be ordered, but in exchange for this, you get a very competitive price," said Novak.  "Other companies specialize in making long, more complex sequences."

For VIB, the advantage of using the BioXp will be the "speed/cost trade-off," Novak said, which allows users to "go from sequence to DNA in a week at moderate cost." The institute is also exploring how the platform can be used to advance its research outside of "standard DNA synthesis," such as making site-saturation mutagenesis libraries and combinatorial builds.

At VIB, the new system will be placed in the lab of Thomas Jacobs, a scientist in the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology, who is working on plant genome editing through the use of CRISPR/Cas9 systems. Jacobs said that his lab had been relying on several gene synthesis providers in the past, depending on the length of the sequences and the necessary turnaround time, but decided that using the automated system would be a "better use of our time."

Initially, Jacobs's group plans to use the BioXp to clone fragments to fit its modular DNA assembly system. "There is a regular stream of new projects and plant species that need custom components, and having a DNA synthesizer on hand will streamline the workflow," he said. "Later on, I am interested in using the system to construct libraries of vectors to either do a combinatorial screen of components or to construct CRISPR libraries," he noted.

According to Wood, Jacobs very much fits the profile of existing BioXp users, some of whom are also working in plant genomics.

"It's been adopted fairly strongly in areas where people want to make drugs, specifically in the immuno-oncology space, [as well as in] the plant genomics space, et cetera," he said. "In plant genomics, people can use it to modify the traits and have that plant do something special for them," he said.

VIB's Novak said that she believes there will be further uptake of the BioXp in Europe, for various research areas. "With the further growth of the synthetic biology field, catalyzed by CRISPR and next-generation sequencing, there will be a demand for tools to further accelerate DNA synthesis and sequencing," she said. "While some universities and institutes invested in setting up genome foundries, indicating a huge commitment to making DNA in house, there are other options available, such as outsourced DNA synthesis or using a BioXp system."

For its part, SGI-DNA's Wood said that his firm views courting European researchers as one of the "top initiatives" at the company. He noted that SGI-DNA expanded its commercial presence to Europe earlier this year and now has a sales person on the continent to assist what the company believes will be a growing list of new clients.

SGI-DNA had previously served the European market solely via distributors, and continues to rely on them to provide customers with reagents, according to Wood.

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