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TeselaGen Biotechnology to Commercialize JBEI’s DNA Cloning Software


Startup TeselaGen Biotechnology is preparing to launch a cloud-based commercial version of the j5 software package, an automated DNA cloning tool that was developed by a research team at the Joint BioEnergy Institute.

TeselaGen licensed j5 from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the lead institutional partner of JBEI. The commercial version of the software is currently being tested in an ongoing private beta by several undisclosed industrial and pharmaceutical companies ahead of a full launch slated for early 2013.

The commercial version of j5 will be offered under a software-as-a-service model on a secure hosting platform, Michael Fero, TeselaGen co-founder and CEO, told BioInform. It will also include an updated interface that will make the software easier to use, he said.

San Francisco-based TeselaGen is still accepting participants for its beta and offers discounts to customers who sign up, he said. Pricing for the full commercial release of j5 has not been disclosed.

A free version of the software will still be available from LBNL for academic and non-commercial users.

Any improvements to the software made at JBEI and TeselaGen will be included in both the commercial and free versions of j5.

In addition to selling licenses to j5, TeselaGen also plans to market pre-made combinatorial libraries — collections of hundreds to millions of related DNA assemblies, each with a different combination of genes or parts that perform similar functions in different organisms — to biopharmaceutical and biochemical companies, Fero said.

TeselaGen officially opened its doors a year and a half ago with funding from Fero and company co-founder Eduardo Abeliuk. The firm also has two National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grants to fund software development and commercialization activities. It is actively seeking additional investors.

The company currently has seven employees and is looking to hire programmers who are familiar with JavaScript and have some knowledge of biology.

More than Software

Nathan Hillson, director of synthetic biology at the Fuels Synthesis Research Division of JBEI, led the development of j5, which was designed to reduce the time and costs associated with DNA synthesis. Hillson is a cofounder of TeselaGen and serves as its chief scientific officer.

The software helps users design DNA construction protocols and also compares possible design methods to determine the most cost-effective approach to synthesizing the clones, a feature that no other cloning software packages provide, he told BioInform in a previous interview.

He also noted at the time that other methods of DNA assembly introduce “scar sequences” and are “limited in terms of making big combinatorial libraries” (BI 8/13/2010).

J5, however, enables "bigger scales of science or research than could have been accomplished before,” Hillson said in a recent statement. This is particularly true when it comes to building combinatorial libraries, according to TeselaGen.

In one example where j5, traditional cloning, and DNA synthesis were used to build a combinatorial protein library, j5 proved to be a much cheaper and faster option than the competing approaches, requiring less than two months and under $30,000 for the job, according to the company. Traditional cloning required 11 months and $122,000 and DNA synthesis needed $538,000 and a little over two months to complete the same task.

According to JBEI, j5 is currently being used in more than 250 institutions worldwide. The institute first began exploring commercialization options for j5 in 2010 (BI 8/13/2010).

TeselaGen’s founders initially met at Stanford and had previously discussed the possibility of launching a company together, Fero said.

“We figured that if we could secure an exclusive license for the [j5] software kernel, then we would have a good nucleus for a synthetic biology company,” he told BioInform.

He also explained that the company chose a SaaS-based approach because it’s a much cheaper way of providing compute power, particularly for smaller biotechnology firms that lack internal infrastructure; and it chose a hosting service that could offer adequate security for customers with sensitive datasets.

But TeselaGen wants to offer more than just software, Fero said.

“Our vision is to create a very complete user experience for [customers] of the software,” he said. That covers designing and linking combinatorial libraries to existing internal infrastructure as well as providing alternatives for clients that don’t have the requisite infrastructure, he said.

To cater to the needs of the latter group, TeselaGen will use a portion of an NSF grant to explore methods of “producing complex combinatorial libraries [using] dedicated devices,” or “what essentially amounts to a DNA printer,” he said.

TeselaGen expects to begin prototyping a DNA printer early next year, he said. The company hasn’t decided whether the device will be used internally or marketed as a commercial product, he added.

The company also believes that this strategy will make it a more competitive player in the marketplace, where it will have to contend with firms like DNA 2.0, open source efforts like Virginia Tech’s GenoCAD, as well as with traditional cloning approaches.

“We are hoping that a more complete user experience,” along with “integration to their existing user infrastructure,” is “beneficial to our customers,” Fero said.

Furthermore, offering features that allow industrial customers to “exploit” their investments in automation — for example application programming interfaces that help j5 talk to robotics equipment — will help the company build its client roster, he said.

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