Interview with John Edgell, Digital Director

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June 2, 2023

John Edgell has been working in the software industry for over 15 years, developing cloud and mobile-based applications in commercial and research industries. He joined Evonetix in 2020 to lead the development of the company’s cloud platform.

When did you join Evonetix, and what attracted you to the Company?

I joined Evonetix in March 2020 at the start of the first lockdown. I had just finished working for a biotech company that was developing monoclonal antibodies, so I was fully aware of the challenges they faced in having to order DNA from third parties to use in their projects. The Evonetix platform aims to solve some of these challenges to give end-users total control over their DNA synthesis and massively reduce the turnaround time involved in getting synthetic DNA into the hands of scientists. This vision really attracted me to Evonetix. Cutting weeks of delay as well as costs will be a massive productivity boost for our customers.

I was also attracted to Evonetix because it brings together experts from a very diverse range of disciplines. For example, on a single working day, I can talk to mechanical and electrical engineers, physicists, synthetic chemists, and biologists.

What is the focus of your role at Evonetix?

I am focusing on building the Cloud application that will serve as the entry point to our synthesis platform. This will enable our end-users to upload, manage, and analyse their sequences to ensure successful synthesis, collaborate on projects from any location, and provide real-time monitoring and control of the synthesis device they are using. The Cloud application creates the instructions that our device follows to synthesise the user’s DNA sequences.

We also provide tools and Cloud-based platforms to other groups within the Company, as well as IT support and infrastructure to help the organisation function and grow. The storage, use and access of data within a company has become a key capability to enable growth and innovation.

Why was there a need to develop a Cloud platform?

Being able to analyse and translate DNA sequences into a set of instructions for the device to synthesise and assemble can be computationally demanding. By leveraging the power of the Cloud, we can scale our Cloud platform on demand to ensure our end-users always have enough computational power to do this quickly and accurately. As the capabilities of our platform improve over time and the sequences we can synthesise become longer and longer, this will become increasingly important. We also need to be able to run algorithms to work out which approach is best when dealing with complex sequences. The platform also provides powerful and standardised workflow tools that give our users what they need in one place without having to jump between tools.

The biotech sector is currently experiencing a revolution in terms of how they manage and process their data, moving it to the Cloud and using more software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms for this purpose. Having a Cloud platform allows easier integration between our users’ Cloud environments and other platforms through application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs).

Please could you give an overview of the Cloud platform and how it integrates with Evonetix’s gene synthesizer?

Our Cloud platform has several aspects to it. Firstly, it provides our users with a way to add sequences to a synthesis run, analyse them to ensure they can be successfully synthesised, and select where they want to place them afterwards.

Security is paramount in this market, so we need to provide robust user management, permissions, and access control over data that our users put into our platform. We also offer a complete log of all actions users have taken on our platform for full traceability and accountability. This must all take place in a secure streamlined user interface to give our users the best experience on our platform. It is also possible to monitor synthesis runs through the user interface and make sure alerts and notifications get through to the right people when needed.

To generate a set of instructions for the device to follow, we need a thorough understanding of the chemical and thermal processes that take place during synthesis. We also need to know how each device is calibrated and what chip combination it has, to make sure the instructions we send to the device will be executed successfully. On top of this, we need to understand the DNA sequence itself so that we can successfully partition a customer’s sequence, considering things such as secondary structures, and enable assembly into longer sequences.

The Cloud platform will provide information on the devices and cartridges a company has purchased from us, giving them access to servicing and maintenance information. We stream and log every piece of data a device and cartridge generate during their operation so that we can monitor their performance and proactively deal with any problems that may arise.

How have you approached biosecurity to ensure that your system will enable automatic checks against databases of potentially hazardous sequences?

Biosecurity is quite a complex subject, and we need to think about multiple potential risks that we must protect against. We will carry out thorough customer screening to ensure that our users are who they say they are and that anyone being added to a customer’s system is an authorised user. We will further protect against more complex browser hijacking or cross-site scripting attacks so that a user’s data isn’t modified. In line with the best practices in use by gene synthesis companies, we can actively screen users’ sequences and, upon detecting a sequence of concern, will prevent that sequence from being synthesised until we have verified that it is appropriate with the user.

How will you ensure data security for your customers within the Cloud?

We take security very seriously and start by ensuring that our own IT infrastructure is secured. We make certain that we are protected from supply chain attacks and have robust security scanning of all the code and dependencies we put into our systems. All data in transit will be fully encrypted and protected at rest using a zero-trust model to ensure that only authorised people can access data – that includes our own team. We aim to provide full operational security with change management, vulnerability management and protective monitoring. Further to this, all our customers’ environments will be siloed from each other to ensure there is no data leakage between customers.

From an informatics-focused perspective, what do you think are the main outstanding challenges facing the synthetic biology field?

In the age of data that we live in, biology is experiencing an explosion in the amount of data available to researchers. These days, most laboratory equipment can connect to the Cloud and upload data. Biopharma 4.0 and digital transformation mean that new data is constantly being generated. Being able to understand and leverage the value of that data in a meaningful way is the next big challenge.

Where do you see the future development of Cloud technology in synthetic biology and what new possibilities may be opened?

Cloud technology has revolutionised the way companies think about infrastructure and has ushered a paradigm shift as computing becomes cheaper and easier to access than ever before. You no longer need a room full of servers with a limited life, and large costs for maintenance and scalability. Data storage and access suddenly became cheaper and easier, and you can now scale infrastructure on demand to match your workload. Sequencing technologies have become more affordable and accurate, providing more data than ever.

Over the last five years, there has been a real shift in the biology field to take advantage of this and new technologies such as data lakes, knowledge graphs, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have brought about a change in how that data is used to accelerate innovation and reduce time to insight. I think that with the advances in synthetic biology, this will be inverted and DNA synthesis will drive a more targeted approach in ways not possible with traditional molecular biology techniques, effectively front-loading the existing Cloud technology process to make it more valuable and powerful, and opening new avenues for innovation.