Cork biotech firm taking the fiction out of science

Sachin Chalapati and Nimesh Chandra of Helixworks.

A Cork firm is progressing the creation and storage of synthetic DNA, writes Trish Dromey.

The creation of synthetic DNA and the use of DNA as a storage medium are no longer the stuff of science fiction novels — Cork biotech start up Helixworks is making both of these things real.

Poised to become Ireland’s first gene foundry, the company has patented a process which allows it to synthesize longer sequences of DNA that have previously been impossible and which can be used by researchers in cancer treatment and in creating genetically modified organisms.

Even more exciting than this, has been the creation of an early prototype of a technology which enables digital data to be coded into DNA.

Helixworks’ chief technology officer Sachin Chalapati says this is an early step towards harnessing the storage capacity of DNA and revolutionising the digital storage industry.

“DNA is a small and dense molecule — you could put all the information in the world on DNA and it would weigh just one gramme,” he said.

Preparing to provide its first customer with synthetic DNA in November, Helixworks was founded in India but came to Cork in 2016 when Mr Chalapati and co-founder and chief executive Nimesh Chandra were accepted to participate in venture capitalist SOSV’s RebelBio accelerator programme for biotechnology companies.

“Afterwards we decided to stay in Ireland because it was a very good hub for biotechnology companies and was a good place to network, talk to potential customers and to look for investment,” said Mr Chalapati.

Securing investment of $190,000 (€160,800) and $140,000 in grants, which included money from SOSV, Cork Local Enterprise Office and Enterprise Ireland, the founders rented office space at the Environmental Research Institute.

Continuing their work on both DNA synthesis and storage, the company now employs a staff of five, including two in India.

At the South by SouthWest (SWSX) accelerator pitch event in the US earlier this year, Helixworks won the most innovative company award and $1,000. It has recently been named as a regional finalist in this year’s Intertrade Ireland Seedcorn competition.

Immediate plans include sending its first order of synthesized DNA to UCC in November. UCC researchers will use it with a new gene-editing technology called CRISPR which is used for creating genetically modified organisms.

Estimating that the synthetic DNA market is worth in the region of €1.2bn, Mr Chalapati says Helixworks is now in discussion with research institutes in both Ireland and Europe.

In this very specialised space, he says there are now 10 large companies and around 10 start ups.

“The difference between the DNA synthesized by us and other companies is that our DNA strands are both longer and of higher quality than those created by traditional methods. Using longer strands means that research is accelerated,” Mr Chalapati said.

In addition to readying itself for its first sale, Helixworks is also preparing to raise up to €4m in investment by the end of the year.

“The initial R&D on gene synthesis is almost done — we need the funding to employ more people and automate the process.”

Early next year, the company plans to move to a larger laboratory at the ERI where it will increase its staff size to eight and set up a semi-automated system to supply research organisations in Europe.

Mr Chalapati says that the sale of synthetic DNA will generate revenue for the company and allow it to forge ahead with R&D into DNA storage.

At the SWSX event earlier this year, Helixworks demoed its prototype — called the MoSS — which shows digital data being coded into DNA in real time.

“We are the first start up to have created a platform which allows digital data be translated into DNA,” said Mr Chalapati.

He further explained that up until now the biggest stumbling block to harnessing the storage capacity of DNA has been the cost of synthetic DNA and the speed of translating data into DNA.

The company’s goal is to establish itself as a frontrunner in making DNA hard drives a reality and as the world leader in enzymatic DNA synthesis.


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