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Success Story - Building DNA with ‘genetic Lego’

A young cancer researcher has set up his own ‘assembly line' and established a worldwide market for its innovative ‘genetic Lego' products, with the help of grant funding from Innovate UK, the new name for the Technology Strategy Board.  

"I did my PhD at Oxford University in biogenetic engineering studying cancer viruses, but I found it really difficult to find what I needed; even fairly standard bits of DNA took some tracking down," said Dr Ryan Cawood, Managing Director of Oxford Genetics.
 
It's a real issue in fields like vaccinology, oncology, immunology and microbiology, where studying and modifying DNA is at the heart of much research. Seeing other researchers facing similar difficulties, Ryan sensed a potential business opportunity. However, to get a business off the ground, he needed to prove the concept. 
 
Ryan entered a Smart competition run by Innovate UK in 2011 and with the help of a £24k award, plus £35k he raised himself, he set about demonstrating how his idea would work.
 
Smart awards tackle the funding gap often experienced by many small and early-stage companies with game changing, cutting-edge innovative ideas and high growth ambition and potential.
 
"Without that award Oxford Genetics would have been dead in the water, it made all the difference in the first six months," Ryan said.
 

Snap Fast - the flexible friend

For most research purposes DNA needs to be engineered in order to be useful. The established method involves obtaining a 'backbone' piece of DNA, designing strategies to modify it with enzymes and joining it to other pieces of DNA to suit the needs of the particular research project. 
 
"It's a complex, laborious job, and if the direction of the project changes you often have to start from scratch, making it even more time-consuming and expensive," Ryan explained.
 
Oxford Genetics has developed a flexible genetic engineering platform - Snap Fast - that enables scientists to modify DNA to suit their research needs. Its unique selling point is the design of the pieces of DNA, which interlock like Lego blocks and are fully interchangeable. Customers can either assemble them themselves or buy a complete item.
"It's a similar approach to car assembly where seats, wheels and other elements are added to a basic chassis to create a complete car.  
 
"Our system is a step-change in genetic engineering technologies, providing more efficient, cheaper and easier-to-use DNA. Being able to change and swap pieces of DNA easily, without having to start again, means major cost savings for research budgets. No one else has our range of products, and we expect to capture a substantial share of a very large and expanding market," he added. 

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