Joy Lian

What do major pharmaceutical companies, labs at research universities and small West Coast biotech start-ups have in common?

Simplex Sciences, an undergraduate-run biotech start-up at Yale, sells single-stranded DNA ladders to all these organizations. The start-up recently developed a DNA ladder in a new size due to client demand.

“Expanding our product line is definitely a priority,” said Eli Metzner ’20, the chief scientific officer at Simplex.

The group produces single-stranded DNA ladders to sell to customers such as Novartis, Roche, MIT, Stanford and New England BioLabs.

DNA ladders act like microscopic rulers, helping researchers measure the length of artificially synthesized DNA sequences in terms of what are called nucleotides — the individual As, Cs, Ts and Gs that together comprise a sequence. Depending on the expected size of the DNA strand, Simplex sells ladders anywhere from 10 to 100 nucleotides long. The group’s newest addition is somewhere in between, at 20 nucleotides.

The newly released ladder joins a collection of products available to order on the group’s website. Prices range from $90 to $200, as the size of the ladder increases.

Metzner explained that DNA ladders are a valuable resource because of their variety of functions.

“The majority of people using our ladders are using them in sequencing and synthetic biology applications, but that is about as specific as we can be,” he said. “We can envision plenty of uses for our ladders, because single-stranded DNA research is such a fast-growing field.”

Metzner also explained that the group fills a niche in the research market. Most large lab supply companies sell either RNA or double DNA, he said, but single-stranded DNA is harder to obtain.

Maya Overton ’20, CEO of Simplex, said the group is currently focused on marketing campaigns to broaden its customer base. Last year, the group traveled to the Envision Conference at Princeton, which she said brought leaders of new and developing startups in the tech sector together for a week of networking and discussions.

Simplex works out of molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Ronald Breaker’s lab at Yale. The science behind the startup comes from a paper published by Breaker, Overton said. Breaker’s strategy employs a kind of enzyme that self-cuts DNA to exact lengths.

“You’re letting the DNA do the work itself, just with a few chemical manipulations,” Overton explained.

Working in the lab has exposed Metzner and Overton to science they had not encountered before, they said. This focus on DNA, Overton said, is not something she has learned about in any class so far.

“When I joined Simplex, I realized that there was this huge field out there that not many people know about,” she said. “It’s so exciting because you get to use science in a different way than just medicine.”

Niam Shah ’21 joined the group last fall. As a double major in Biochemistry and Economics, he said working with Simplex represents an opportunity to explore a more nuanced approach to science than the traditional research he was accustomed to doing.

“The reason I joined Simplex was to bridge the gap between research and the real world,” Shah said. In an environment like Simplex’s, which relies on both entrepreneurship and science, every member has the opportunity to develop a diverse range of skills, he added.

As an independent nonprofit, Simplex uses the revenue it generates from selling ladders to fund further development and research. Metzner said he sees the continued expansion of the quantity and scope of product as an important aspect to the group’s future.

“In the last year and a half we’ve been in the lab a lot, trying to make enough stock of our product,” Metzner said. “We’ve also been trying to increase our visibility and find sources of funding to expand our efforts.”

Tommy Martin |