Biotech’s Brave New World: Bay Area startups band together to ramp up


A few weeks into California’s stay-at-home order in March of last year, Sri Kosuri started thinking. Coronavirus testing was already looking like a mess. He knew that if we were to get the upper hand on the virus, testing needed to be cheap and widespread. Kosuri, a biologist who co-founded the Emeryville-based firm Octant, which uses DNA sequencing to search for new drug targets, wondered if his own technology could detect the virus. So he and a handful of his colleagues went back into the lab and got an answer: Not only could their platform detect the virus, but it could also do so cheaply, and it could process lots of samples at once.

Initially, Kosuri wasn’t sure what to do with that. The testing logjams were a massive, widespread issue, a puzzle that a large logistics company or the federal government should more easily solve than a 12-person biotech startup in California. “It just seemed like someone else was going to solve the problem,” Kosuri says.

But when it became clear there was no coordinated solution coming down from on high, Octant changed its tune. Its coronavirus detection platform, which Octant made open-source, has since been used by UCLA and other institutions. At the end of last year, the company announced it was partnering with the Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks to open a 22,000-square-foot testing facility in Emeryville.

Octant isn’t alone. The Bay Area — full of world-class brainpower and the nimble, disruptive mindset that comes with startup culture — is home to hundreds of biotech companies. The pandemic has been both an opportunity and a challenge for these firms, a lengthy scramble to rethink existing tools and research, to level up ideas and bring them to the world at scale. As a result of long days in the lab and unexpected collaborations, the region is producing some of the most promising and innovative tools in the ongoing, patchwork fight against COVID-19.

Staying a step ahead of nature

The biotech community’s waking hours are spent thinking about solutions to our most pressing health problems, so it was clear when the virus arrived that companies were poised to make major contributions. It was just a question of how quickly they could offer improvements — and how to sustain them. “This is a marathon,” says Angela Bitting, senior vice president of corporate affairs at the South San Francisco company Twist Bioscience. “It’s a marathon with a lot of sprints interwoven.”

Twist, among other things, makes synthetic RNA, which can be used as a control to verify that a genetic test — like many common COVID tests — is running accurately. In March 2020, the company introduced synthetic controls for COVID tests, and then set about figuring out how else they could contribute. They’ve since rolled out gene panels that help researchers identify and analyze not just the coronavirus, but also a multitude of other viruses — a capability the current pandemic has proved is…

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