Featured Interviews Synbiobeta — 22 May 2014

It is fascinating to see how a bright young mind such as Max Hodak can become a powerful player in an industry such as biotech. A company like Transcriptic does not follow any of the traditional approaches that you think of when you hear Biotech Company. Being fascinated with this ingenuity, I had to speak with the brains behind this operation. Transcriptic is still in the startup phase but is catching momentum and attention quickly. In short it is a service provider that allows for a lab to outsource their assays and experiments. Transcriptic can also act as a storage bank for data on the cloud and incubator for samples where it is located out in Menlo Park. The company operates with the aid of automated machinery to do lab work with far more accuracy and efficiency than is possible by hand.

With the company’s newly received funding they are extremely busy getting ready to move to their new 10,000ft2 warehouse where they will hopefully be able to handle the demand for their services. Max was kind enough to have a conversation with me about his company and his journey to Silicon Valley.

Max grew up programming and enrolled as a Biomedical Engineering undergraduate student at Duke University in North Carolina. During his studies he took time off to build and sell his first company MyFit that he started developing in high school. MyFit sold for $1M and Hodak would end up finishing his degree at Duke only to commute back and forth to Silicon Valley in California. Amongst all the flying he still managed to find time to work at the Duke Medical center doing research studying electrophysiology in monkeys to develop brain machine interfaces.  While he was helping Miguel Nicolelis do research he realized that a lot of his work was repetitive and he felt like a robot. This is where he got his idea for Transcriptic. Rather than waste time practicing and training yourself to perform thoughtless robotic tasks, why not program robots to do the same work so that you can use your brain. To Max there was no other place to build this company than Silicon Valley, California.

Initially Max didn’t know he was going to start and operate his own lab, but he thrived on the idea of virtualizing research, which to him was the obvious direction that the biotech industry is headed. This was easy for him to predict due to the trends in cloud computing. Max had a vision of the market years ago, and that vision is proving itself to be accurate as shown by the rapid growth of his company. He already is swarmed with customers from Harvard, Cal Tech, Stanford, UCSD, UCSF, as well as a couple small companies.  During the first quarter of the year it was in the stage of proving that the concept worked and now that it is obvious that it does, it is time to scale up.

The big push of Transcriptic compared to other Contract Research Organization is that it is far cheaper and that is due to the fact that it is asynchronous. The workflows still have the biological time constraints, but thanks to Transcriptic’s software the machines can run multiple experiments simultaneously and therefore can do a lot more at once. This means that on one plate there can be multiple unrelated projects from different scientists going on at a single time.

The company is evenly built between hardware, software, and biology, but Max envisions that one day there will be more robots than humans. Hodak and his team do not build robots from scratch, but rather buy existing machines that have been tried and deemed true, like Tecan, and wipes the software clean so that he can program them in his unique way. The hardware gets tinkered with a bit as well, which requires constant “babysitting”. They are constantly tinkering and it would not be a good business model selling a piece of equipment that needs to be serviced and updated constantly. This is the main reason they offer themselves as a service rather than shipping their custom devices in a box to a company. Although they will buy commercial robots they are still thrifty and build incubators, refrigerators, and devices for plate logistics, etc.

To fully optimize their technology you need to be a programmer, which most biologists are not and that is their demographic, so they needed a software tool that allows for easy communication between biologist and machine. A solution for this was working with SnapGene. With software tools like SnapGene, Hodak believes that someday biologists will be able to draw up and run experiments from their house or a coffee shop.

I then had to ask him his opinions about the field of synthetic biology. I asked him if he would invest in a DNA printing machine, or stick to cloning techniques. Hodak believes that the term “Synthetic biology is over blown and when it works reliably in the end people will just call it biology”. Currently Synthetic biology is still “dwarfed by the market of cell-based assays, drug discovery, and biogreen technology.” Transcriptic does a lot of DNA synthesis but companies like Twist and Gen9 do a great job and he does want to compete with them on that. He is happy working down stream from DNA synthesis.

With his newly acquired space and well-defined niche there are some really exiting things he told me to look for in the next couple of months. He mentioned a couple product launches that he is excited about but needs to polish up. Products, being services and ways to use their services. That is all the information he would disclose right now, but stay tuned.

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About Author

Jacob Kurzrock

Jacob Kurzrock is a recent graduate from the University of California at Davis where he earned a bachelors of science in the field of Biological Systems Engineering. As an undergraduate he had a wide range of exposure to different labs and companies from the Plant Reproductive Biology to Amyris and then to CleanWorld. For his senior design project he helped design, build, wire, and program a strawberry harvest aid robot. In his free time you might see him brewing beer, playing basketball, or just hanging out on the beautiful beaches of Tel Aviv. On his return to California in fall 2014 he will be looking for a job so give him an offer before someone else does.

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