Devices & Diagnostics

DNA laser printing to make vaginas smell like peaches? Cambrian Genomics gets $10M

It’s not just peach-scented vaginas – Bay Area startup Cambrian Genomics also purports to make manure smell like bananas, says CEO Austin Heinz. The startup says it uses the rapid-fire DNA synthesis technology that can modify the DNA of probiotics – or any microorganism, really – to do much more than just alter the aroma […]

It’s not just peach-scented vaginas – Bay Area startup Cambrian Genomics also purports to make manure smell like bananas, says CEO Austin Heinz. The startup says it uses the rapid-fire DNA synthesis technology that can modify the DNA of probiotics – or any microorganism, really – to do much more than just alter the aroma of excreta.

The company just raised about $10 million to do so from more than 100 investors, listed here, according to a regulatory filing.

While this isn’t exactly a new technology, the company’s been attracting notoriety for its questionable route to commercialization – and certainly for the founders’ way with words. The concept of “Sweet Peach” probiotics are, after all, attracting some controversy over its level of, err, taste.

Using “DNA laser printing,” Heinz calls it, Cambrian’s tech allows biohackers to create new “creatures” – that is, synthetically create new strains of microbes.

“You have this Frankenstein moment,” he says, “where you’re like, ‘Oh my god!’ It’s alive.”

Heinz says the company can speed up the process of DNA manufacture, sidestepping the standard process of cloning. He says they do this by assembling DNA on microarrays, sequence it, then use an LCM – or laser capture microarray – to rapidly cull the modified bits of DNA.

“With standard cloning, you spend 95 percent of our time on manual labor, and 5 percent on design analysis,” Heinz said. “With our process, it’s more like 95 percent on analysis and design, and five percent on labor.”

Notably, Heinz says one of the Bay Area startup’s customers is GlaxoSmithKline – though the customized DNA it buys is for drug development. It’s also inking deals with Roche and ThermoFisher Scientific.

Heinz says that Cambrian Genomics is interested in the probiotics market because it sidesteps the standard biotech regulatory process. It aims to develop a “personalized probiotic solution” so that individuals can alter their gut, mouth, lung and undercarriage microbiomes to their heart’s desire. There are legitimate applications to the banana poop microbe, Heinz says – factory farms spend many millions to reduce odor, for instance, and such probiotics could be helpful.

The three-year-old company has been making some media waves – pissing off a litany of media folk in the process. Why, they ask, should a woman use a genetically altered probiotic supplement to change her natural scent?

Inc. wrote about Heinz and cofounder Gilad Gome’s presentation today at the DEMO conference in San Jose, California – and how this vagina-centric probiotic will be called Sweet Peach:

Sweet Peach will have practical benefits, like preventing yeast infections and other health problems caused by microorganisms, Heinz said in his presentation. But the ambition behind it is a loftier one.

“The idea is personal empowerment,” he said. “All your smells are not human. They’re produced by the creatures that live on you.”

“We think it’s a fundamental human right to not only know your code and the code of the things that live on you but also to rewrite that code and personalize it,” Gome chimed in.

And why stop at humans? The other product Heinz and Gome are partnering on is Petomics, a probiotic for dogs and cats that makes their feces smell like bananas.

Cambrian Genomics has already used its laser-DNA printing capability to power another popular crowdfunded product, Glowing Plants, which raised more than $480,000 on Kickstarter. Heinz turned to Tilt for Sweet Peach because, he said, “we got banned from Kickstarter.”

While Heinz blamed that decision on Kickstarter’s being run by “a bunch of hipsters from New York” who “don’t like supporting actual cool science,” Gome clarified the situation to Inc. after their presentation, saying Kickstarter had instituted a ban on synthetic biology projects because they are seen as too controversial. “It just created such a big fuss. They didn’t want to handle it,” he said. “I don’t blame them. Most governments around the world are having difficulty regulating this field.”