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Controversial DNA startup wants to let customers create creatures

Published: January 5, 2015
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Source: SF Gate

The 31-year-old CEO has a deadpan demeanor that can be hard to read, but he is not kidding. In a makeshift laboratory in San Francisco, his synthetic biology company uses lasers to create custom DNA for major pharmaceutical companies. Its mission, to “democratize creation” with minimal to no regulation, frightens bioethicists as deeply as it thrills Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

With the latest technology and generous funding, a growing number of startups are taking science and medicine to the edge of science fiction. In the works or on the market are color-changing flowers, cow-free milk, animal-free meat, tests that detect diseases from one drop of blood and pills that tell doctors whether you have taken your medicine.

'Totally new organisms’

But few founders are pushing the technical and ethical boundaries of science as far as Heinz, who told the Wall Street Journal, “I can’t believe that after 10 or 20 years people will not design their children digitally.” At a recent conference in Vienna, he said, “We want to make totally new organisms that have never existed.”

His 11-person team has raised $10 million from more than 120 investors, including Peter Thiel’s venture firm Founders Fund. “It’s a fundamentally new technology that can open up a whole new industry,” said partner Scott Nolan.

Venture capitalist Timothy Draper, another investor, praises Heinz as an “exceptional leader with a unique passion for his business.”

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

To be clear, Cambrian isn’t printing designer babies or dinosaurs — yet. Still, its rhetoric alarms critics. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a bioethics watchdog group in Berkeley, sums up Heinz’s belief that “every problem can be solved by engineering” as as a kind of “techno-libertarianism.”

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