Interview with Dr Raquel Sanches-Kuiper, Vice President of Science and Applications

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July 6, 2023

Raquel Sanches-Kuiper joined Evonetix in 2017 as Director of Biology, before being appointed VP of Technology in 2021 and VP of Science and Applications in 2023.

Raquel is an experienced R&D leader with a track record of taking new ideas from concept phase to commercialization in the next-generation sequencing (NGS) space.

Before joining Evonetix, Raquel was at Solexa (then Illumina Inc.) from 2002 as a Protein Engineer and major contributor to its disruptive NGS technology. She then moved to leadership roles, overseeing global multidisciplinary projects to support product development and the introduction of new products. She has also acted as a Consultant for projects in collaboration with Genomics England, Technology Development and Applications, and Customer Support.

Prior to that, Raquel was a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, University of Cambridge, in the area of cancer gene therapy. Raquel holds a PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Auvergne and an MSc in Biochemistry from the Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon.

What is the focus of your role at Evonetix?

As VP of Science and Applications, I am responsible for establishing the scientific strategic direction for R&D teams across the science and engineering departments. I also focus on the development of specific applications for our platform, working with our early access collaborators throughout our product roadmap and supporting strategic partnerships to demonstrate the value and utility of our products via customer validation.

You have been at Evonetix for over six years, what are the most exciting technical developments you have witnessed in your time at the company?

One of our most exciting achievements was demonstrating the feasibility of our core vision: DNA synthesis at semiconductor scale to put a fast and accurate gene foundry in every lab in the world.

I was very proud to see the team integrating all the different components of our platform – our proprietary thermally-controlled DNA synthesis, our novel gene assembly and error removal method, and our semiconductor chip. Our team is very multidisciplinary – we have many talented people with a vast level of expertise, and it was one of the most exciting moments of my career when we succeeded in combining each component of our technology into the platform.

In recent years, more companies seem to be moving into the engineering biology space – what are the key factors that differentiate your technology from the current DNA synthesis technologies?

We are the only company that has integrated all aspects of gene synthesis into a single benchtop device. We also went one step further and introduced a staged error removal step, Binary Assembly®, enabling the synthesis of high-quality, gene-length DNA ten times faster than current technologies.

With our technology, speed and scalability are achieved by massive parallelism in the benchtop format, made possible by our thermal control chip and accompanying reagents, and long, accurate DNA can be made faster as thermally controlled assembly eliminates errors and accelerates post-synthesis workflows.

Our accessible benchtop platform will accelerate the design, build, test and learn (DBTL) cycle, dramatically reducing experimentation time.

How is the current offering for DNA synthesis holding back innovation, and how will Evonetix’s technology address this?

Currently, the only option available for companies requiring long synthetic DNA is a centralized service model, where DNA is synthesized or assembled from pre-ordered and manufactured oligos. With this outsourcing model, researchers must design their experiment, submit sequences, and send them off to be synthesised. Once manufactured, DNA must then be shipped back to the user. This cycle is very time-consuming and hinders the progress of research. Moreover, gene-length DNA is particularly hard to prepare from pre-synthesized oligos as random errors increase exponentially with the length of DNA. Therefore, the time and cost to obtain long DNA are prohibitively high.

By bringing gene synthesis in-house, our benchtop synthesizer allows users to access custom DNA in hours, rather than weeks, enabling researchers to design more ambitious experiments and generate results faster.

Engineering biology has the potential to address some of the world’s greatest challenges, by enabling next-generation healthcare to biofuels and climate-resistant crops. As scientific innovation grows, the demand for fast and affordable access to accurate gene-length DNA accelerates, increasing the pressure on existing supply chains.

What challenges have you and your team faced in the last few years?

Evonetix’s technology combines three core innovations that make benchtop synthesis possible: our novel thermally controlled semiconductor chip, proprietary thermally sensitive chemistry and staged DNA assembly process with integrated error removal.

Developing each of our core innovations and integrating them into a single platform has posed many challenges. For example, binary assembly involves many biochemical and physical processes, all of which have different optimal conditions. Once integrated into the platform, we had to maintain the conditions that meet the requirements of the binary assembly process, but also support the thermally sensitive chemistry. By coming together as a multidisciplinary team of biologists, physicists, engineers and chemists, we are able to solve these challenges as we continue to develop our platform.

Where do you see Evonetix’s technology having the biggest impact in life science research?

By delivering accurate gene-length DNA synthesis in a matter of hours instead of weeks, we will unlock innovation and redefine the future of many sectors, not only in healthcare, but also manufacturing, agriculture, materials and food. We have identified three existing markets that will offer immediate opportunities for us: antibody therapeutics, nucleic acid vaccines, and protein engineering.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the potential uses of mRNA vaccines, and many other targets are now in development including influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, tuberculosis, and anti-cancer vaccines. The rapid growth and investment in this field as well as protein engineering driven by increasing demand for biologics and personalised medicine increase requirements for longer, accurate synthetic DNA.

Antibody therapeutics are another rapidly advancing in clinical development, with 115 therapies currently approved across the US and Europe and many more submitted for approval, including treatments for cancers, Alzheimer’s and haemophilia. The rapid expansion of this proven therapeutic class demands greater capability for screening and optimization of antibody sequences, all requiring high-quality DNA.

Alongside the development of new computational tools, expanding capabilities of AI-driven protein design, and advances in gene editing, access to long, accurate synthetic DNA through our decentralized approach will ignite innovation across the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.