Inside the head of Thomas Ybert, co-founder and CEO of DNA Script

For the 6th episode of our #WhatHealth podcast, Vincent Puren spoke with Thomas Ybert, co-founder and CEO of DNA Script.
In one sentence, "DNA Script proposes a solution to make biology programmable".
Let's discover more here.

Published on 16 September 2022 at 09h37


For the 6th episode of our #WhatHealth podcast, Vincent Puren spoke with Thomas Ybert, co-founder and CEO of DNA Script. 

In one sentence, "DNA Script proposes a solution to make biology programmable". Clear, isn't it? 

Obviously, we wanted to know more. So, to better understand the DNA script project, we have to mix history, human adventure, hypergrowth, internationalization and learning. This is what we talked about with Thomas and what we are sharing with you today.  

 Genesis of the project  

DNA script was officially born in March 2014, from 3 co-founders. Thomas Ybert, Sylvain Gariel and Xavier Godron. Before that, it is first an idea, a need, that emerges in the mind of Thomas.  

Thomas is a pure product of the engineering system. After graduating from Polytechnique and completing a thesis with Sanofi, he worked at Total in San Francisco as a Biotechnological Senior Scientist. During his years there, he realized that his daily life would be much easier and his work more efficient if he was able to synthesize DNA quickly and non-chemically. The idea being more and more present in his mind, he decides to work himself on this innovation, which will revolutionize the synthesis of DNA. 

It was through Total that he met his future partners, Sylvain and Xavier. 

All three of them, as early as 2013, began to allocate a significant amount of their personal time to this project. First, in addition to their jobs until June 2014, Thomas decides to leave Total, to return to France to focus 100% on this project.  

It was then the sequence of three crucial steps that marked the official launch of DNA script: funding of €150,000, a collaboration with the Pasteur Institute and the filing of patents.  

The missions of each were delimited quite easily, explains Thomas. Indeed, despite the fact that the three of them come from quite similar backgrounds, he tells us that they complement each other and share the same vision, which is essential to create such a project. 

This is how Thomas became Chief Executive Officer, Xavier, Chief Technology Officer and Sylvain, Chief Operating Officer. This complementarity has brought them to where they are today, with 220 employees in the United States and France and a total of 275 million euros raised. 

Creating DNA, how and why? 

The discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, rewarded by the Nobel Prize awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in 1962, was the starting point for mastering this molecule. We also owe this discovery to Rosalind Franklin, Thomas reminds us. 

At the time, everyone knew that this structure was special, but this discovery marked a new era since it was discovered that 4 nucleotides (ATCG) code for genetic information. Moreover, to arrive at this conclusion, it was necessary to synthesize the DNA. 

Indeed, it was necessary to master the structure in order to improve knowledge and subsequently, to understand how viruses and diseases work and thus build the necessary applications to treat patients. For example, in the case of insulin, the genetic program of a yeast had to be reprogrammed so that it could produce insulin and treat patients with diabetes.  

Controlling DNA is fundamental to the science of life. 

As soon as it was discovered, scientists and engineers around the world raced to learn how to synthesize and sequence it. It was only much later that this practice took on an industrial dimension.  

It was in the 2000s, thanks to Frederick Sanger, that the human genome was sequenced for the first time, then in 2013 the company Illumina revolutionized sequencing with NGS - next generation sequencing. This technology reduced the cost of DNA sequencing to 4,000 dollars versus 1 million dollars in 2007. 

Thomas confides that if he had to go back 10 years to invest in a company, he would invest in Illumina, which has totally revolutionized the market and knowledge, according to him. 

For their part, the three founders of DNA Script wanted to invent a disruptive technology, accessible to all, in a qualitative way. This is how 'Syntax', the 15-minute programmable printer, was born. 

In practice, how does it work?  

In the same way as a paper printer, it is necessary to insert a cartridge, in this case of enzymes, nucleotides and wash buffers, then to insert, on a rack, the synthesis plates, which are composed of 96 small tubes. 

In parallel, the application connected to the printer allows to generate the desired sequences. 

Thomas explains that their value proposition is based on two main pillars: 

  • To fully control its value chain. No longer depending on a third party to achieve the result. 
  • Turner on time': a considerable reduction in the time it takes to access DNA. Without the printer, the process involves many players, not to mention the time it takes to send, process and receive the data, which can take from several days to several weeks. Here, with SYNTAX, the result is assured in a few hours.

With SYNTAX, it is the life science research aspect that is at the heart of the process, whether it be around concrete projects or simply with a view to advancing knowledge. 

At the same time, the objective is to play a major role in personalized precision medicine, such as RNA vaccines for example. SYNTAX should be able to help oncologists analyze a patient's tumor, through specific analysis of its structure and sequencing, and then personalize the vaccine according to the patient's tumor. 

"You have to think from the patient's point of view," Thomas reminds us. "It's very complicated for him to travel, to stay several hours in the hospital and let weeks go by while waiting for the results. This innovation should save time and therefore improve the care process. 

In addition, the three founders have other great ambitions for their technology. 

An innovation in health, yes, but not only 

Although success has been achieved so far, Thomas confides that the final goal is far from being reached. The 'technology to product' phase is well underway, now we need to move on to the 'product to revenue' phase. 

The entire R&D department is now located in France, a great source of pride for Thomas, who had to justify this choice for a long time and who today is far from regretting it. In addition, part of the product development and manufacturing, particularly for reagents, is also located in France. 

The rest, like the commercial part, as well as the other part of the manufacturing are hosted in the United States. Thomas explains that it is his partner, Sylvain, who took care of the development of this, but that today, it is himself who lives there, with his family. 

It's a challenge not only personally, but also professionally. Time difference, flight time, cultural difference. Despite this, the three associates try to create a link between the employees. "Not easy when we know that DNA script is 7 years to reach 100 people and 1 additional year to reach 220 people", says Thomas Ybert.  

Thomas confides that this hypergrowth issue is a challenge to manage as an entrepreneur. They have experienced failed recruitments, not only because of incompetence, but sometimes (sometimes) also because of incompatibility with the company culture. This created difficult moments, both for the partners and for some recruits. They then learned from their mistakes and now every recruitment is finally supervised by one of the partners, which is fundamental for the good functioning of the company. 

However, internationalization and hypergrowth have not only brought difficulties. Indeed, the United States is now DNA script's most important market. 

Thomas tells us for example about their collaboration with Moderna, a project financed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) 

This project consists in creating a container that would be deposited in areas where viruses/infections are detected. This same container would receive samples, sequencing, and the virus genome so that it could then create up to 500 doses of vaccine in 24 to 48 hours. 

In this process, DNA script collects the data that will be transmitted, transforms it into the first DNA fragment that will then be assembled to be the first vaccine genes. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, in France, Thomas and his associates have also worked a lot with the DGA, the French army, to develop the first version of the kits that allowed and still allow to do PCR tests (that allow to detect different viruses, not only SarsCOVID). 

DNA script's playing field is very large, and this is due to their business model strategy. 

Unlike some of their competitors, they do not only sell the service, but also the technology. Indeed, the SYNTAX printer as well as the technology are sold with the cartridges that contain the enzymes and nucleotides, DNA script's core business. On the other hand, the three partners have understood the stakes of their business, which is why in their teams, one person is in charge of the continuous exchange with all the regulatory entities. Moreover, the technology is not sold to the first person who comes along. The profiles of the buyers and their objectives are studied beforehand. In the future, Thomas confides to us that they would also like to be able to keep an eye on what is synthesized, because he knows to what extent it can be diverted for very bad uses. 

When Vincent asks Thomas about what he hopes will happen next, Thomas talks about extending the technology to other sectors. That this innovation will not only be used to revolutionize the health sector, but also to bring solutions to major problems such as poverty or the climate emergency.  

He confides to us that there is still an infinite number of possibilities for DNA script. He also tells us that he learns new things every day, and that this is priceless for the first-time entrepreneur that he is. 

Thomas also talks to us about people. For him, it is important to grow the company, not only for the science and technology, but also for all the people who have contributed to make DNA script what it is today.  

This exciting exchange with Thomas takes us to the biotech side this time. However, as the conversation goes on, we realize that no matter what sector, the challenges of an entrepreneur remain the same: recruitment, internationalization, fund raising, regulation,... 

Thomas confided to us that one of the rules to apply, which he became aware of with hindsight, is that the entrepreneur, from the beginning, must put himself in a condition of success. You have to imagine that the expenses, legal for example, will be rewarded later on and have a real impact on the life of the company, regardless of the field of expertise. 

To listen to the podcast in its entirety, go here. To view the podcast in its entirety, go here. 




[2] U.S. Department of Defense agency responsible for research and development of new technologies for military use