If you do synthetic biology, you probably need plasmids. If you need plasmids, you’ve probably (hopefully) heard of Addgene because Addgene loves sharing plasmids from one researcher to another. The nonprofit plasmid repository started in 2004 when co-founder Melina Fan ran into the problem of getting plasmids from other labs for her graduate research and wanted to solve the problem for others. The co-founders included Melina’s brother and husband who brought business and computer science experience to Addgene from the start. This combination helped build a good foundation for Addgene including important details like building up a barcoding strategy for the growing library of plasmids.
Now, they have over 40,000 different plasmids ready to ship to any requesting researcher and have already shipped over 600,000 plasmids. This is important because these plasmids have the DNA sequences that researchers need for their work, and without services like Addgene individual labs don’t have the resources to continually maintain their previously researched plasmids and ship them to everyone who needs them.
Recently, I got the chance to visit Addgene headquarters and chat with co-founder and current Chief Scientific Officer, Melina Fan. She has forged a career improving the workflow of scientific research that she feels lets her be able to “do good every single day”. She earned a PhD from Harvard, co-founded and remained involved with Addgene for past 12 years, co-founded LabLife (web-based lab management software) that was sold to BioData, and participated in the Pipeline Fellowship six-month angel investing bootcamp. Check out some of my conversation with Melina Fan below.
You’ve talked about how you had trouble getting plasmids during graduate school and how that lead you to start Addgene. Why do you think others had not created something like Addgene before?
Yes, Benjie Chen, Kenneth Fan, and I started Addgene in 2004 because of difficulties that I had with obtaining plasmids from other labs. Small plasmid repositories existed at that time, but they often served only a local area, while we wanted to create a global, central repository for scientists.
As we’ve seen in other industries, the Internet has changed the landscape for creating centralized services and has fostered a sharing economy. We were able to build a website for scientists to easily deposit their materials and find materials from other scientists – this would have been much more difficult in the days when scientists found materials only through catalogs or printed journal references. In addition, we had the luxury of starting Addgene at a time when 2D barcoded test tubes and sample tracking were in use. Thus, beginning from the first sample we received, we were able to monitor the location and associated information electronically.
You started Addgene as a bit of a family affair. Were they all on board when you first came up with the idea?
Amazingly, yes, they liked the idea as soon as they heard it. I feel like that’s a good sign; I also have plenty of ideas that are met with lukewarm responses, and then I know I need to go back to the drawing board. Addgene’s founding team had complementary skill sets, which helped us get started. Kenneth has business and operational experience, Benjie is a software engineer, and I brought the biology knowledge.
As with any new organization, I’m sure you faced struggles to establish yourself. What do you remember as the turning point when you knew that this thing was going to work and have staying power?
We faced many challenges when we founded Addgene. The one that was most difficult was establishing the legal infrastructure that allows us to transfer the plasmids between institutions. When a scientist deposits a plasmid to Addgene, the scientist retains ownership of the material. Thus, we needed to broker a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) between the depositing institution and the recipient institution. This can be a lengthy process when done on paper, so Addgene built a novel electronic system for processing these agreements. This in itself has streamlined sharing. Thus, what was once one of our greatest challenges has turned into one of Addgene’s important assets.
I remember the turning point for Addgene well. It was 2006 and everything was taking longer than expected. The MTA approval process that I described had slowed us down and we were struggling with funding. We had a core group of scientists who believed in sharing and had deposited materials to Addgene, but the nominal request fees that we collect for distribution were not sufficient to cover our costs.
One night, we went out for dinner with a friend and his father, Dr. Robert Messing, who was a professor at UCSF at the time. He suggested that we add the lentiviral packaging plasmids to our repository. Based on his recommendation, we wrote to Dr. Didier Trono at the EPFL, and he deposited psPAX2 and pMD2.G. Those are the most requested plasmids from Addgene of all time.
The next year, we broke even, and we have been financially self-sufficient ever since. We are proud to say that in over 10 years, we have never had to raise our nominal plasmid request fees. Our nonprofit structure allows us to make decisions that are guided by the benefit we will bring to the scientific community.
What’s the biggest challenge to Addgene’s development today?
As with many high-tech companies, the biggest challenge is staying relevant through rapidly changing times. We need to actively track the latest technological breakthroughs and constantly add new plasmids to our collection. As a hub for scientific sharing, it’s our job to make important plasmids available to the community as they are developed. This allows the scientists that we serve to also stay at the cutting edge of technology.
Other than CRISPR, what other technology do you feel Addgene has most enabled?
One of the reasons that I love working at Addgene is the breadth of science that we cover. Because plasmids are used in many life science fields, we serve scientists working on a wide range of organisms and who study everything from cancer to synthetic biology.
The CRISPR community has embraced sharing and we are glad that we can help scientists around the world introduce this tool to their labs. We also get many requests for other tools, such as fluorescent proteins, optogenetics, and viral expression plasmids
Do you have the up to date numbers on how many plasmids you all have shipped?
We have shipped over 600,000 plasmids since our founding in 2004, and we shipped 120,000 in 2015 alone. The Addgene community is truly global; over half of our distributions are to scientists working outside of the United States.
Do you see Addgene moving beyond plasmids to other functions for the community?
One area that we’ve built over the past few years is educational resources. We are fortunate to have the support of depositing and requesting labs that are experts in their fields, and we are tapping into that to share information with the community. Our protocols and educational blog posts are visited over 100,000 times per month.
We have also started a new Research Team at Addgene. With this team, we’ll be able to provide better quality control, optimize protocols, and explore new areas. Whatever we do, we will stay true to our mission of facilitating and contributing to scientific research and discovery.
Finally, what book or paper would recommend that has been foundational for you?
I don’t have one book in particular that has shaped me. I am always trying to learn new things, and much of my reading tends to be about science or business. I recently read Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One” and enjoyed it. The message is about working on big ideas – ideas that will take us from zero to one – and that resonated with me. Time is a precious resource and prioritizing what to work on is a critical step that is often overlooked while we are busy optimizing the buffer conditions of our latest experiment.
Addgene welcomes all sorts of plasmids from researchers and has accumulated an impressive depth and breadth of plasmid types. You can sort by application, organism, selection markers and more. Curated collections help you get started on resources for your application. The SynBio collection has loads of plasmids for synthetic biologists and does a great job of curating them by applications, depositing researchers, plasmid cargo, and publications. Check out the special collection of synthetic biology plasmids and resources for yourself.
Melina also touched on some ways in which they are expanding beyond just providing plasmids. The research team and its new lab sounds like it will be boosting Addgene’s scientific capabilities, but they also provide great educational resources. Addgene has an active blog filled with lab advice and primers on hot molecular biology techniques. I personally made use of the blog and their plasmids 101 eBook when I was first starting my graduate research.