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Brad Stenger says Paradigm’s much-vaunted gene factory may not be pretty, but it works

The whole idea of Paradigm Genetics was to challenge all of the prevailing paradigms, in science and in business,” says CEO John Ryals of the modus operandi he’s used in the company since co-founding it in Research Triangle Park four years ago. No surprise, then, that Paradigm breaks the mold as well in the design of its new facility, which opened earlier this year. What is surprising is how rationally and cohesively the innovation fits with the company’s technical objectives and business plan.

Paradigm’s objectives take inspiration more from advances in light manufacturing than from any scientific or technological advance. Its GeneFunction Factory — 80,000 square feet of industrialized biology space in Building 1B — has no precedent. Ryals, determined to lead the automation of identifying gene function, sought to recreate the experience he had when he first saw TIGR automating gene sequencing. “It was, ‘Wow!’ No one’s ever set out to do anything with an approach like this.”

In its factory, the company is searching for gene function in rice, Arabidopsis, and fungal organisms. It has developed a high-throughput, assembly-line process to measure gene-level modifications in target organisms and to collect data on gene expression, phenotype, and metabolic activity.

The floor plan is simple enough: ring 80 workstations with grow rooms, robots, and — for the lucky soul who has to pot a few thousand plants in the morning — a 12-foot tall industrial machine taking up a 400-square-foot footprint. But the automation process supported by the floor plan is hardly so simple. It took two prototype iterations to set in place the 220 measurements encompassing 160 traits over the life cycle of each plant making its way through the factory. The complexity in the process is managed by an extensive LIMS that barcodes, tracks, and coordinates data collection on every sample traversing the factory.

Lure of color

The challenge for any factory, of course, is hiring people who can handle the boring repetition of doing the same task thousands of times. In this case, it’s preparing and collecting tissue samples. In need of a detail-oriented staff, Ryals chose to seek out the entry-level (in or just out of college) person with some biology background. The idea of being on the cutting edge of genomics technology has been lure enough to attract a steady stream.

But the environment lends itself to high turnover. The architectural task was to design a building that would match the sensibilities of this youthful demographic well enough to convince them that it was worth starting their careers here. This is where the real adventure in architecture begins — the intersection of industrialized biology, business planning, and company culture. If successful, the company has a viable method for sustaining growth in an industry where competition for talent is fierce.

It’s a bet that Paradigm was not at all timid in making. Every effort has been taken to channel the spirit of the factory floor to the rest of the company space. According to Ryals, “The theme was always industrialize, industrialize, industrialize.” In office areas, designers realized that theme with exposed metal flex-strut, much of it in the form of raw-edged flexible office furniture. Like modular dorm furniture, the stylized, high-function units lend themselves to personalization, and they play on the toughness of the materials to present a clean and comfortable vision of factory life for Paradigm’s young, suburban workforce.

Providing an even more visceral backdrop to the exposed metal is a bold palette — lots of yellow with flourishes of purple, green, black, and white. “Colors,” Ryals says, “offer lots of emotion.” It’s something he cherishes in the company’s shared space. He also made sure unassigned pockets give everyone the chance to connect. “One thing left out of so many labs are places to carry on a conversation. People have important, valuable ideas, but things don’t get discussed. And then nothing happens,” he says.

Employees are encouraged to self-express. Beads dangle at the entrance to office cubes. A 30-foot strip of factory wallspace is set aside for graffiti. The materials, colors, furniture, and beads mesh into an aesthetic that few would want to incorporate into their own homes. In fact, it’s downright tough on the eyes. But it succeeds brilliantly in energizing and challenging the staff.

While the success of lab design sometimes has less to do with aesthetics, it always has everything to do with performance. Working in new company-issue tie-dye labcoats, Paradigm employees have been hitting the company’s target to identify more than 200 gene functions per week. The company is establishing metabolic profiling, a snapshot of the chemicals in an organism’s cells at a given time, as a significant metric. Ryals considers the utility of metabolic profiling on par with proteomics. Probably most significantly, Paradigm’s factory system will be taking on high-throughput analyses of human tissues in the coming months. Having proven its worth in the ag domain, the GeneFunction Factory rolls on into valuable new territory. The kids are bound to think that’s pretty cool.

 

Brad Stenger is a freelance journalist who researches human-computer interaction in computational biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, designs bioinformatic interfaces for Yale’s Gerstein Lab, and works as a laboratory planner for archi-tectural firm CUH2A. Send your comments to Brad at [email protected]

 

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