The Viennese biotech startup Ribbon Biolabs has raised an €18M Series A round to reduce the costs of synthesizing long DNA molecules, which could accelerate research into synthetic biology and the storage of data as DNA. 

Supported by lead investor Hadean Ventures, Ribbon Biolabs’ fundraising round is part and parcel of a continuing investor interest in DNA manufacturing companies. For instance, earlier this month the French firm DNA Script added €31M to bring its Series C investment round to a total of €180M.

Ribbon’s round will go towards hiring staff, expanding into the US market, and commercializing the firm’s DNA synthesis platform. Ribbon’s technology is designed to make long DNA molecules more cheaply than current suppliers, making it easier to engineer custom genes for use in research and manufacturing.

DNA synthesis typically involves adding nucleotide building blocks onto a DNA molecule one by one. There are two main approaches to do this: chemical synthesis — a decades-old technique often involving toxic chemicals — or enzymatic synthesis, an emerging technology that uses naturally-occurring DNA-synthesizing enzymes. 

The cost of DNA synthesis has come down over the last 10 years; a common price is around €0.07 per base pair, around 10 times less than a decade ago. Synthesizing sequences between 100 and 300 base pairs long is common and relatively affordable. However, larger fragments — important for many biotech applications including creating viral genomes, complex pathway engineering, and gene synthesis — are still expensive and time-consuming to produce.

Ribbon Biolabs aims to make DNA molecules of thousands of base pairs at a low price. The firm does this by using enzymes to stitch together small sequences that are chemically synthesized. “[Many other companies] do something roughly along these lines too, but in an inefficient and inaccurate manner,” said Ribbon’s CEO, Harold P. de Vladar. “Instead, a key feature of our technology is that we have a way of precisely and accurately controlling the manner in which these DNA components are linked together into a longer molecule.”

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Founded in 2018, Ribbon Biolabs was able to synthesize a 10,000 base pair molecule by May 2021. The firm also announced the successful synthesis of a 20,000 base pair molecule in December 2021. However, de Vladar told me the company is cautious about aiming too high too soon. 

We have to be careful of not putting the cart in front of the horse: what should drive the technology are the needs and bottlenecks of the diverse industries,” said de Vladar. “Once we have a client that needs a 100,000 base pair molecule, we’ll be happy to engage and pursue that challenge efficiently. In the meantime, we are becoming better and better at building and delivering what our clients need.” 

Beyond the pharmaceutical industry, long DNA molecule synthesis is a critical component of the burgeoning DNA information storage field. A wide variety of firms including Illumina, Microsoft, Twist, and the French life sciences firm eureKARE are researching DNA as a long-term storage medium. DNA has a half-life of about 500 years, which makes its longevity theoretically much better and more reliable than traditional information storage technologies, which last around 20 years.

But let’s be clear, DNA storage is a long-term type of concept,” said de Vladar. “A bit like magnetic tape recorders, which are still in use as long-term data backups, not as a fast read-write system. The shocking benefits of storing data on DNA are that it is massively space-efficient (unlike any other medium) and that it is much more stable than any other medium.

Cover image via Elena Resko

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