Li Zhu, PhD
Li Zhu, PhD

One of the surest ways to build a successful company is to produce the tools that other successful companies need. It worked during the California Gold Rush of 1849, and it works today in biotech.

Chinese molecular biology company GenScript Biotech knows this quite well. GenScript built its reputation in synthetic biology by providing cloned genes to researchers throughout the world. As the company grew, it expanded its mission to democratizing access to cloned genes.

Unraveling complexity

“Understanding DNA is the Holy Grail for modern biologists,” says Li Zhu, PhD, chief strategy officer for GenScript. Although biologists are grasping at this prize, it remains tantalizingly out of reach. The problem, Zhu explains, is that biology, at its most basic level, is too complicated and has too many variables. “You can have low success rates and poor reproducibility,” he observes, “and not know why.”

Sometimes, Zhu suggests, the reason is the poor reproducibility of components: “When researchers make genes or reagents in their own labs, it’s hard to ensure consistency.” Reproducibility problems may be mitigated now that biotechnology is industrializing, and GenScript and other commercial firms are making research materials in very large batches under exacting quality controls.

GenScript Biotech lab
GenScript Biotech provides gene, peptide, protein, CRISPR, and antibody reagents to scientists in over 100 countries. Founded as a contract research organization specializing in gene synthesis, the company has broadened its purview through partnerships with scientists conducting life sciences and translational biomedical research, as well as early-stage pharmaceutical development.

Rapid growth

GenScript was founded in 2002 as a contract research organization (CRO) focused on synthetic biology. Today, the company has wider ambitions. “It provides tools for researchers throughout the world to explore DNA’s live secrets,” says Zhu.

The gold rush analogy is familiar to GenScript founder Frank Zhang, PhD. He received his doctorate from Duke University before joining Schering-Plough. After transitioning from academia to industry, and while envisioning his own company, Zhang reflected on the gold rush’s most compelling lesson: The most successful ’49ers weren’t the prospectors, but the companies that provided their tools. “In biotech, those tools are genes,” Zhu stresses.

Initially, Zhang and his two co-founders focused initially on providing research expertise around the creation of synthetic genes. About two years later, GenScript started operating in Nanjing, China, where Zhang had earned his master’s degree years earlier, and where the young company could easily attract young scientists as well as seasoned academics.

Today, Nanjing is where the company maintains its operational center, which includes R&D and production facilities. Those facilities are mirrored in Piscataway, NJ. The company also has business centers in Europe and Japan.

GenScript began its most rapid growth period after it went public on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 2015. The company’s initial public offering raised $67.2 million. “At that point, we had the funding and resources to expand,” Zhu recalls. The company proceeded to form two subsidiaries (Legend Biotech and Bestzyme), launch research into chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapies, and enhance its synthetic biology capabilities through the acquisition of CustomArray.

The company is proud that 28% of its employees hold advanced degrees in biology. This high percentage, Zhu maintains, gives GenScript a “from the lab, to the lab” perspective.

The company notes that its number of citations has grown from 0 at its founding in 2002 to well over 5000 citations per year in 2017. The total now exceeds 35,000. “Most of the citations are very simple,” Zhu concedes. “Researchers mention using our tools or reagents, for example.”

Some citations, however, delve more deeply into GenScript’s contributions. “As the only commercial participant in the Synthetic Yeast Genome Project (SC2.0), we delivered long, complicated DNA fragments, which ensured the successful assembly of the complete length of an artificial yeast chromosome (number 6),” Zhu points out. He adds that GenScript has also participated in an HIV vaccine research group in the NIH vaccine research center.

Building a comprehensive business

GenScript currently has 54 patents, with another 142 patents pending. Biosciences services and products constitute 67% of the business, whereas cell therapy products and industrial synthetic biology products account for 17% and 6%, respectively. About 60% of the company’s clients are in academia. The remaining 40% are commercial life sciences companies—what GenScript calls “industrial” users.

GenScript’s two subsidiaries, Legend Biotech and Bestzyme, reflect the company’s internal incubation and steady growth. Legend Biotech focuses on CAR T-cell therapy platforms; Bestzyme focuses on therapy enzyme research and production.

Although GenScript and Legend Biotech are separate companies, with their own CEOs, when GenScript discusses its successes, it doesn’t hesitate to cite Legend’s CAR T-cell research. GenScript also emphasizes its growing strength as a contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO). The company recently announced that it was investing $75 million in a new biologics facility in Zhenjiang, China.

“We are the second vendor in the world to have commercialized rabbit monoclonal antibodies,” Zhu states. “We developed our own antibody engineering platforms, which incorporate single-domain and bispecific/dual-epitope antibody technology, as well as platforms for peptides and proteins.”

Legend and CAR T cells

Collaboration often is the outgrowth of internal research. Legend Biotech is a case in point. It presented its early clinical trials of LCAR-B38M, which uses CAR T cells to treat multiple myeloma, at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in June 2017. It is the first CAR T-cell therapy to be reviewed by the China Food and Drug Administration, and it has also received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for clinical trials. GenScript is partnering with Janssen Biotech to develop and commercialize this CAR-T therapy. The Janssen deal netted Legend a $350 million up-front payout—reputedly the largest up-front payment for a U.S./China bioproduct licensing deal in this industry.

New MolecularCloud democratizes cloning

In 2018, GenScript test-launched MolecularCloud™, a plasmid repository service. “It provides a more intuitive way to manipulate DNA, as well as a website for researchers to share and communicate DNA components,” Zhu explains. “Users manipulate DNA by parts—the minimum functional unit of a piece of sequence—rather than by sequence.”

“This lets customers with little molecular cloning training perform bioengineering research,” Zhu continues. Already, more than 4000 scientists (mainly academics) are sharing their cloned constructs on this open-access platform. In Zhu’s estimate, this approach could save life sciences researchers up to $1 billion globally.

MolecularCloud is the capstone for GenScript’s CloneArk™ and GenSmart™ platforms. CloneArk lets scientists archive cloned genetic sequences for their own subsequent use. Approximately one million clones are already archived in this system.

“Many customers don’t know that when they use our GenSmart portal to order clones, our smart algorithm matches their requests with their previous constructs and suggests the best way to get the clone, rather than trying to synthesize everything from scratch,” Zhu elaborates.

GenScript Lab
Source: GenScript Biotech

What’s next?

GenScript recently launched products in synthetic biology, bioengineering, and biomanufacturing. These include pathway assembly library services, single-stranded DNA for genome editing, and a novel semiautomatic industrial-grade magnetic bead-based protein purification system. GenScript is also expanding into cell therapy, Zhu notes, as a consequence of the company’s CAR T-cell work.”

GenScript Biotech

Location: 860 Centennial Avenue, Piscataway, NJ 08854

Phone: (732) 885-9188


Principal: Frank Zhang, PhD, CEO

Number of Employees: 2800

Focus: GenScript is a molecular biology company focused on gene synthesis and related areas. It recently expanded its services and products to include peptides, proteins, antibodies, and cell lines, and remains the largest biology-based contract research organization in China.

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