Accomplished DNA sequencing scientist, Dr Jonathan Rothberg, owner of 55m Gene Machine and support vessel Gene Chaser discusses the next stage of his journey, including refitting a Damen support boat as an additional floating laboratory...
Dr Jonathan Rothberg is a man on a mission. His goal is to “feed, fuel and heal the world”, a phrase he uses as a mantra as he leads me on an action-packed tour of his newest boat, Gene Chaser, on a hot day in June. It is the support vessel to the 55-metre Amels Gene Machine, which he took to the polar region in 2017. The trip showed the whole family, including his five children, a world that is being redrawn by global heating.
“You could talk to people that remembered when islands that we saw were peninsulas. Global warming was measurable and tangible to the whole family, and so we decided to put a laboratory on the Gene Machine,” he says. “Our goal was to use what nature had developed over the past four billion years of evolution and look for genetic elements that could help us with global warning and find genes that evolved to break down plastics. The bulk of the world’s medicines come from plants or living organisms and we really wanted to figure out how to feed, fuel and heal the world through the genetic variations.” With the onboard lab also came a land-based company that would focus on the environment. “We were making wonderful progress,” he says. But then Covid-19 appeared.
When the world hit a collective pause in March 2020, so did that line of research. An airborne virus spreading freely – and no systematic way of tracking it – became the scientist’s top priority. For the bulk of 2020 he spent time on Gene Machine with his family, crew and visiting scientists, trying to come up with the fastest way to develop a reliable test anyone could easily do at home.
“I realised what we really needed to do was to make a rapid diagnostic, not just for Covid-19, but for the next thing,” he says. “Something that would be universal, that could be reprogrammed, that could be in anyone’s house and that you could use to instantly diagnose people,” he says. When the work encroached into their private lives on board as more people joined the effort, he decided it was time to upgrade the floating lab. “We realised that we needed a dedicated boat for these efforts.”
And that boat is where we meet on this hot day in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s easy to spot Gene Chaser with its characteristic axe bow, large open deck and colourful symbols that mirror the nameplate on the side of Gene Machine.
There isn’t much time for my tour; the boat is leaving within 48 hours to get to New York, where Rothberg and his team will celebrate the introduction of Quantum-Si, a “next-generation protein sequencing platform” he launched a few years ago, on the Nasdaq Stock Market (it is now trading under the symbol QSI). The next day, he is travelling to Cape Canaveral for the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which is on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. The rocket’s payload includes the Butterfly IQ, the world’s first handheld ultrasound machine. “A device that was tested on Gene Machine is going into space,” he says, with what I interpret as genuine wonder.
Butterfly IQ is one of eight companies he’s founded in the past 10 years under the umbrella of the startup accelerator 4Catalyzer, intent on improving the world’s access to top-of-the-line diagnostic tools. Some of it sounds like the stuff of science fiction (Quantum-Si uses the power of semiconductors to sequence proteins and advance the discovery of new drugs), but as a pioneer in high-speed next-gen DNA sequencing, he has long worked at the intersection of biology, engineering and computer science with tangible results.
Gene Chaser will allow him to continue the work he’s done on land and offshore aboard Gene Machine, but on a bigger scale. He’s had her modified to host visiting scientists and academics. The boat has two laboratories, one enclosed and air-conditioned, the other housed in an open hangar. On the day we meet, the hangar is filled with crates stamped with the names of Hyperfine, the maker of the first FDA-approved portable MRI machine and brain monitor. It too is a successful endeavour and will also be traded on the Nasdaq (symbol HYPR).
“We had a contest to name the boat,” he says. “I wanted to call it Gene Lab, because it would be a laboratory, but Hunter (Hopkins, a member of the crew) came up with the name Gene Chaser. Everybody voted and that won. It made sense because one, these are traditionally known as chase boats and two, we are literally chasing for genes that can solve the world’s toughest problems.”
The transformation of Blue Ocean, which Damen built on spec as the eighth in its 55-metre YS 5009 series of yacht support vessels, into Gene Chaser began in the Netherlands. The shipyard had planned the interior for eight guests, four staff and crew with a few interior tweaks befitting the yachting experience, but with its new mission as a floating lab and business incubator, they had to tweak the space. The former main deck lounge, initially envisioned as a comfortable crew or guest hangout space, became a wet and dry laboratory.
“When the Gene Chaser came over from Holland, I had a few meetings on it, which was great,” says Rothberg. “But we also realised that if the Gene Machine is run like a Four Seasons, we really needed to run the Gene Chaser more like a Holiday Inn Express (with self-service breakfast, lunch or dinner) and so we’ve spent the last month outfitting it so it could be much more self-sufficient.”
A marathon refit at the Lauderdale Marine Center shipyard added an upper deck enclosure in polycarbonate and aluminium, plus on the main deck, a converted shipping container that can hold an all-terrain vehicle and other toys (or serve as a bar for an event) and a hot tub. An additional sheltered lounge on the foredeck, which would require relocating emergency rafts from their original location, was completed at the Newport Shipyard in August.
Gene Chaser’s captain, Brook O’Neill, who was an architect before he got into yachting full time, worked with Engineered Yacht Solutions (EYS) and other Fort Lauderdale-based contractors on the modifications.
“We wanted people to work hard and play hard,” says Rothberg, who decided the more utilitarian garage/beach club/dive centre should become a guest-friendly space. To achieve that, Captain O’Neill devised horizontal slats in teak that conceal machinery and had touches of stainless steel, storage and a dive locker added. Beyond this space is the commercial-grade engine room with seven yellow Caterpillars (four engines, three generators), which is Rothberg’s favourite space on board.
“This is really a speedboat,” he says. “We had it to 40 kilometres an hour and because of the bow, instead of pitching, it just cut right through and it was amazing. The 42 Fjord was barely able to keep up with it once we were over one-metre sea.” He is equally enthusiastic about a corridor lined with pipes, pumps and manifolds. “It reminds me of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” he says. The Jules Verne novel also provided the names of the comfortable and tidy guest cabins.
Walking through the guest areas is a pleasant experience, and not just because they offer a reprieve from the harsh sun on this day. O’Neill sourced from Florida-based Creative Designs, a cushioned synthetic material for the floor, which is easy to maintain, comfortable underfoot and a good way to keep the noise down.
Quiet is a must on a boat dedicated to research and much of that research will happen in the main laboratory, a clean and bright space surrounded by windows. Glass-enclosed robots are the most obvious tools, which will assist the four full-time people working aboard. “We can set up an experiment and then do it one hundred times,” Rothberg explains.
Also on the shelf are neat piles of white boxes labelled Detect, filled with rapid-diagnostic molecular tests. These resulted from the work that began on Gene Machine in March 2020. “We’ve been a Covid bubble since June of last year and the crew tested every day, sometimes twice a day,” he says. “On three or four occasions, we caught someone positive, but the tests are so sensitive that you can detect [the virus] 30 hours before people start to spread it. They are molecular tests that detect the genetic code of the virus and because they are molecular tests, if there is a new outbreak, in two weeks we can reprogramme them for different strains or pathogens. We have had zero false positives.”
Dr Rothberg, who is active on Twitter, documented their early efforts to come up with a rapid, reliable, universally available test. It attracted the attention of MIT graduate, computer scientist and entrepreneur Hugo Barra, who for several years led Facebook’s VR development.
“He called me in March when I started the project and said, ‘Jonathan, you have a band of pirates,’ and I thought that was funny because we were on a boat. He said ‘That’s great, but we have to make it a real business because the world needs a shield to protect us from these outbreaks.’” Since then, the company Rothberg started with volunteers was renamed Detect and has raised millions. Barra is now the company CEO. “They’ve done beautiful work,” Rothberg says.
The test that kept Gene Machine free of infection is awaiting FDA approval for use in the US. When will it be approved? “I can’t speculate on the government, nor am I allowed to,” he says with a frank laugh.
By now I am duly and fully impressed, but he has one more thing he wants to show me, the prototype of a hoverboard developed by his 10-year-old, Jacob. This invention will “test everyone’s belief system”, he says. “My son over a year ago was looking at the jet surfs and he said, ‘Why can’t we build one that flies instead of riding on the water?’ So he built a working prototype that would fly.” The next step was to make it fly with solar power. This invention led to the creation of yet another company, named Electric Future. Since that day in June, the new prototype has had its first test flight.
Rothberg’s posts about Gene Chaser have attracted many positive comments, although one member of the Twittersphere questioned the value of such an investment for shareholders. With two companies going public within a few months, life-saving inventions tested on the boat and other breakthroughs in the works, the question seems to answer itself.
This feature is taken from the November 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now