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DNA Startup Cambrian Genomics Wants to Let Customers Create Life

Cambrian Genomics founder Austen Heinz at the December 2014 Pioneers Festival in Vienna. (YouTube)

Cambrian Genomics founder Austen Heinz at the December 2014 Pioneers Festival in Vienna. (YouTube)

A California biotech startup has raised $10 million as it seeks to fulfill its mission of allowing customers to modify or even create their own custom genetically modified organisms.

Cambrian Genomics, a San Francisco-based custom DNA company founded by 31-year-old Austen Heinz, is seeking to “democratize creation” by providing DNA mapping for customers wishing to tinker with the genetic code of plants and animals, and even create custom creatures on their computers.

“Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature, and that changes the game,” Heinz told the San Francisco Chronicle. “And that creates a whole new world.”

“We want to make everything that is alive on the planet,” Heinz said at last month’s Pioneers Festival in Vienna, Austria. “Everything that is alive is not optimal. It can be made better.”

“We want to make totally new organisms that have never existed,” he added, “and replace every existing organism with a better one. It just seems obvious that eventually every human will be designed on a computer.”

Cambrian Genomics says it has found a way to dramatically reduce the cost of printing a strand of DNA. Heinz claims that genome sequencing has advanced to the point where people can now take DNA code from libraries and create their own genetic hybrids in an manner analogous to how computer programmers can access code libraries.

The company uses lasers to create custom DNA for major pharmaceutical corporations in its San Francisco laboratory. Its 11-person team has raised $10 million from more than 120 investors, including Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. This, despite a ban on funding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by Kickstarter.

Noted venture capitalist Timothy Draper, who has also invested in the startup, told the Chronicle that he believes it will accomplish great things.

“I love Cambrian,” Draper wrote in an e-mail. “The company is literally printing life. Can’t wait to see all the great things that come of it.”

In a move at least partially designed to combat Kickstarter’s GMO ban, Heinz has announced plans to launch it’s own crowdfunding platform for genetically modified organisms. VentureBeat reports these “creature creators” include Petomics, which seeks to take genetic material that gives bananas their distinctive odor and inject it into E. coli bacteria to create banana-scented poop.

“It’s a pretty strong smell, too,” Heinz explained.

Heinz dismissed claims that he is effectively enabling and promoting eugenics, countering his company’s technology could be an alternative to abortion.

“A decent percentage of people have really nasty mutations that cause really bad, horrible things,” he told the Chronicle, listing cystic fibrosis and Down syndrome. “These are basically like hell on Earth, and I think it’s smart to be able to avoid those things.”

Some of Heinz’s visions for the future seem to border on the absurd.

“If you could take a chicken and make it the size of my building, you would probably learn a lot about genetics, which could be useful for human applications,” he told the Chronicle. When asked if that might be dangerous, he replied, “If the chicken’s carnivorous, yeah.”

Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a bioethics watchdog group in Berkeley, called Heinz’s plans “troubling.”

“We have to take seriously people like Austen Heinz who say they want to modify future generations of human beings and upgrade the human species,” she told the Chronicle. “I think that technical project is far more complicated than they acknowledge. Nonetheless, their story about what we should be striving for as human beings, as a society, I think is very troubling.”

Undaunted by the eyebrows and ire his ideas inevitably raise, Heinz said he wants to help create thousands more similar startups. He hopes scientists might even one day print DNA on Mars.

“It’s going to be an amazing next few hundred years,” he predicted.

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