Metagenom Bio Inc.
This is the very first SynBio Canada Company Profile. Do you work at a synthetic biology company in Canada that you’d like to show off? Please contact us!
Metagenom Bio Inc. is an environmental microbiome company based in Waterloo, Ontario. We chatted with CSO and Co-Founder Dr. Trevor Charles about the company. Dr. Charles was also previously featured in a SynBio Canada Quick Chat article.
What’s the “elevator pitch” for Metagenom Bio?
We are a microbiome company and our first area of focus is precision agriculture. We improve the health of controlled environment hydroponic food production systems, such as greenhouses and vertical farms, using microbiome diagnostic tools and probiotics. This reduces disease, while increasing produce quality and yield. Our technology includes a unique package of DNA sequencing, genomics, bioinformatics, machine learning, and beneficial bacteria. Products include kits for DNA extraction from samples, and probiotic inoculants.
You’ve been working in metagenomics and microbial genomics as a discovery-based researcher. What spurred you to found a company?
Patrick Ang and I were introduced through Ontario Genomics. We have very different backgrounds, he from business, including experience with a bioinformatics software company, and me from the academic world. The impetus was the realization that there is a need to bring science to the marketplace, and many of the scientific advances that could be commercialized never are. At the same time, it is often difficult for the business community to determine the quality of existing science, and differentiate between good science and questionable science. This all added up to opportunity. In addition to our activities in agriculture, we are also pursuing opportunities in the complementary area of mining microbiology, led by Dr. Nadia Mykytczuk.
Could you give any advice to other synthetic biology entrepreneurs?
As a scientist, don’t try to go it alone. Make sure that you have partners or advisors who are well versed and experienced in the business side. The goals, traditions and expectations of business vs academia are quite different, and it is easy to fall into the trap of following the shiny science rather than figuring out how to monetize.
Could you describe the kits you’re releasing? Are you targeting university researchers, companies, both? What do these kits enable that would otherwise be difficult?
In working with clients performing microbiome and metagenomic analysis of low biomass samples such as mine tailings, we found that there was a considerable amount of frustration in the extraction of high-quality DNA from these samples. We thought we could do better than the existing kits on the market, and after trying a number of different approaches, we came up with a method that worked quite well on these challenging samples. We named this process “Rox”, and we continue to use it for in-house extractions for clients. Since there is much greater need for extraction from soils, we decided that our first commercial product would be optimized for soils rather than low biomass samples. Soil is notoriously difficult to obtain high quality DNA that is free from the impurities that inhibit PCR, cloning and sequencing. There are a number of kits available on the market, but they are either too costly, or they don’t work well, with suboptimal yields or insufficient clean up. We adapted our Rox process so that it is optimized for soils, and the result is the Sox kit. In house testing demonstrates that it performs better than the leading kits on the market. Rox will be the next kit on the market, followed by Wox, for isolation of DNA from water samples. So far, feedback on Sox has been outstanding, and we anticipate sales to university researchers and to commercial agricultural and environmental testing labs.
Metagenom Bio has several different “segments” (agriculture, mining, computing, etc). How do you envision these segments working together? Are customers meant to use the full suite of services, a la carte, or is it customized to their goals?
The common denominator is microbiome analysis, and our strength is the customized services that we are able to provide, all the way from study design, sample processing, sequencing, bioinformatics and statistical analysis. We often provide highly customized services. Some clients come to us with sequence datasets that need to be analyzed. Others engage us from the early stages of the project, and we are involved all the way through, in some cases as research project partners. Others are only provided with DNA sequencing according to their specifications.
On the product side, in addition to our DNA extraction kits, we have started selling microbial inoculants for hydroponic systems. The first product is En-Stim, which is based on a bacterial strain that reduces plant stress, increasing produce yield and quality. There are several other potential inoculant strains in our discovery pipeline, for both controlled environment and field crops.
Can you describe an example of a Metagenom project.
We are currently putting a lot of effort into microbiome optimization of hydroponic systems for greenhouses and indoor farms. We have developed a sequence-based microbiome analysis system, Metagenom-1, that includes a proprietary database, and is able to provide early warning of disease-causing pathogens. The analysis also provides information about the overall microbiome signature, how it responds to inputs and conditions, and contributes to and strengthens our microbiome database.
Could you describe the potential impact metagenomics has on synthetic biology.
There is a lot of potential for use of metagenomics in synthetic biology. For example, we have been able to isolate clones from our soil metagenomic libraries that direct the production of novel polyhydroxyalkanoate polymers that have potential for use as high-value bioplastics. The challenge will be to move this towards commercialization, which will require scaled-up production using low-value feedstock, to achieve economic viability in a marketplace dominated by fossil fuel-derived plastics.