At New England Biolabs (NEB), every scientist takes a turn each month helping customers calling into the company’s technical support line—with questions about the firm’s restriction enzymes and other reagents.
If they call on the right days, customers can speak directly to two of NEB’s most knowledgeable scientists: William Jack, Ph.D., the company’s executive director of research, and Nobel Laureate Sir Richard Roberts, Ph.D., CSO.
Aside from the fun of helping customers solve problems, the time spent on tech support reinforces how NEB, which is an employee-owned company, likes to be viewed in the marketplace: as a peer to investigators rather than simply a vendor.
“It also gives us a good edge on what people are really trying to do, and what they’re trying to accomplish,” said James Ellard, NEB’s CEO. “The advantage is that when people call in, they’re going to talk to a scientist who’s working in a very similar area, and can provide that expertise to them. And, frankly, we enjoy it.”
So too do the scientists. In an industry where people, and companies, come and go, the average length of job tenure at NEB is 14 years. One-third of the company’s 350 full-time employees have held their jobs 15 or more years. Ellard, who joined NEB as a summer intern researching filarial parasitology, will mark his 30th anniversary with the company next year.
Under Ellard, who succeeded founder and still-chairman Donald Comb, Ph.D., in 2005, NEB has expanded beyond its core business of making and distributing reagents for foundational techniques such as cloning, PCR, and DNA analysis.
“Had to Evolve”
“We’ve had to evolve. We’ve taken that expertise in enzymes, and actually now shifted our focus to more solution-oriented products,” said Ellard. “In the past, we would have been making individual enzymes that people would sort of plug and play into a workflow. Now, we’re looking at the whole workflow.
“For example, in the next-gen sequencing space, we’re trying to figure out what products we can make that can support the preparation of the DNA upstream: the sample prep of the DNA and RNA going into the machines; and the enzymes that actually work inside the boxes, doing the sequencing. We’re looking more broadly, and taking a more applications-focused look at our products.”
In December, NEB and Synthetic Genomics (SGI) rolled out a kit for cloning DNA fragments using the Gibson Assembly approach, which enables rapid assembly of multiple DNA fragments using a one-step, isothermal reaction. Gibson Assembly was developed by Daniel Gibson, Ph.D., and colleagues at the J. Craig Venter Institute as part of an SGI-sponsored program.
“Restriction enzymes have been the traditional powerhouse in cloning and identifying clones. But we certainly recognize that there are alternate techniques that have come by to enhance and even in some cases, supplant use of restriction enzymes for this,” noted Dr. Jack. “We believe that Gibson Assembly is a very strong method going forward for being able to do not just routine cloning, but also complex cloning that might put together different genes that could assemble entire metabolic pathways.”
NEB is also expanding its research and product development of new enzymatic tools for epigenetic analysis—the purpose of a $640,000 Phase 2 SBIR grant the company won last November. The award adds to more than $1.1 million of SBIR funds awarded for the research since 2009.
Dr. Jack says NEB is well suited for epigenetic analysis since restriction enzymes have their own accompanying methylase.
“Over the years of cloning restriction enzymes, we also have cloned a great number of methylases, and understood their function and structure,” he continued. “In addition, we have worked with the methylases that are involved in maintaining epigenetic states in the human chromosome.
“There are a number of other activities of these methylases that we believe can be used more prominently in footprinting, understanding where transcription factors sit down on DNA at different stages of development, and in gene expression. These will allow a greater understanding of what actually is going on in regulating the expression of genes at different stages.”
NEB continues to expand its workforce and operations worldwide. The company recently opened a seventh subsidiary and distribution center in Singapore, joining subsidiaries in Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K.. The subsidiaries employ 50 of NEB’s full-time employees.
That leaves some 300 full-time staffers, and another 50 part-timers, postdocs, and visiting scientists, based at the company’s headquarters campus in Ipswich, MA, a half-hour drive north of Boston.
Dr. Combs’ commitment to environmental preservation is perhaps best reflected in the bucolic property’s 140,000-square-foot lab and production facility, completed in 2005 within a footprint that preserves three mature copper beech trees and two historic buildings from the site’s original owner.
The campus occupies seven acres of its 120-acre property; the rest is permanently protected open space. The LEED-certified facility incorporates sustainable features, such as LED lighting and a solar aquatics system within a glass greenhouse. The system treats campus wastewater clean enough for reuse or ground water recharge.
“We keep true to our core values of putting science first and taking the environment into account in everything we do, whether it’s the products we develop or the packaging that surrounds them,” said Ellard. “I also like to say that our people and our passion are more important than our processes.”