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Jonathan Rothberg’s Race to Invent the Ultimate Rapid At-Home COVID-19 Test

Rothberg was impatient to begin his external monologue wherever his internal one had been interrupted, but there was one piece of business he wanted to take care of first. In March, the entertainment mogul David Geffen provoked understandable ill will online when he posted to Instagram a photo of his own superyacht escape. “Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus,” he wrote. “I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.” Rothberg insisted that his family’s maritime isolation had been no sumptuous idyll; he had spent most of his time, when he wasn’t petitioning his children for a moment of their attention, scanning the emerging literature for academic experts who could answer his questions as they arose. Whenever his wife was able to be home from the hospital for dinner, the children passed their mother’s face in two dimensions around the table.

Rothberg was born in Connecticut, the second-youngest of seven siblings. His father, Henry Rothberg, had made a small fortune with the invention of a breakthrough form of adhesive for the installation of ceramic tile and stone. The family firm, Laticrete International, is now chaired by Rothberg’s eldest brother, David. Rothberg and his siblings describe an unruly but loving household; as Rothberg likes to put it, “My mother had seven only children.” Henry had a chemistry lab in the basement, and from an early age Jonathan pursued his own unsupervised experiments.

Rothberg was lost to his own dreamy agenda. He taught himself to write code on an early Texas Instruments minicomputer, then sold an inventory-management program to a local tire shop, but wasn’t trusted with the house keys. He built a half-scale T. rex, attempted to shoot mice into outer space, and later counted cards at Atlantic City blackjack tables. He majored in chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, where he was the first person in the dorms with his own Apple computer. His close friend and first business partner, Greg Went, ferried him back to Connecticut for vacations. “Jonathan was just thinking out loud at all times, and not random thoughts but practical ones, so having him drive a car wasn’t really a safe thing to do,” he said.

Rothberg pursued a Ph.D. in biology at Yale. His doctoral adviser, Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas, now an emeritus professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School, described Rothberg to me as “perhaps the most original person I’ve met in my life, ever.” Rothberg was an unusually wide-ranging and syncretic thinker, interested in the possibilities of “biotech” long before the word was in common circulation, and a businessman from his first day of grad school. When he was giving a talk in lab meetings, Artavanis-Tsakonas said, “he would have a little note at the bottom of the slide saying, ‘This is proprietary information,’ which was annoying to me but was also very funny.” Artavanis-Tsakonas went on, “If he had an idea he would follow it up, not like many smart people in the lab who would think of something big, would start, and then with the first difficulty would let it go.” Rothberg founded his first company, CuraGen, right out of grad school. It survived on a string of grants from government agencies, as well as from investments from his parents and siblings; his younger brother, Michael, gave him what amounted to his life savings at the time. The company’s goal was to exploit the growing understanding of the human genome for novel therapeutics. CuraGen went public, on the Nasdaq, in 1998. The following year, the bull market drove the share price from five dollars to two hundred and fifty in six months. His siblings could retire if they wanted to.

Rothberg married Gould, a graduate of Yale’s medical and public-health programs, in 1995; in 1996, their first child, a daughter, was born with a condition that can cause seizures. In 1999, Rothberg and Gould had a son, who turned blue after birth and was rushed to the NICU. In times of distress, Rothberg soothes himself with engineering problems, and as he sat in the waiting room he fixated on the fact that there was no expeditious way to determine whether the baby’s condition was genetic. He noticed a magazine cover celebrating the Pentium chip, and realized it should be possible to quicken genetic sequencing on the model of an integrated circuit. He spent his two weeks of paternity leave sketching out designs, and when he returned to CuraGen he formed a subsidiary company, 454 Life Sciences, to develop the idea. The result was the first major advance in genetic sequencing in the thirty years since the British biochemist and two-time Nobel laureate Frederick Sanger had published his own seminal method. The Human Genome Project—the first composite map of a human genome, which was completed in 2003—had taken thirteen years and cost about three billion dollars. In 2008, Rothberg and a research team used his technique to map and publish the first complete genome of a single individual, the geneticist James Watson. The project took four months and about a million dollars. The technology was also used, by a team in Leipzig, to sequence the first complete Neanderthal genome.

In the wake of the dot-com bust, CuraGen’s stock price fell precipitously. The company’s board, which saw Rothberg’s high-speed-sequencing side hustle as more of a distraction than a valuable investment, fired him in 2005; 454 Life Sciences was sold off for a hundred and fifty-five million dollars, which Rothberg believed represented about a fifth of the subsidiary’s actual value. In the next two years, a rival startup called Illumina cornered the high-speed sequencing market. Illumina is now a fifty-billion-dollar enterprise.

Still, Illumina’s sequencing machines were large and unwieldy—they often required special fortified floors for support—and sold for half a million dollars. It occurred to Rothberg, in his unplanned retirement, that he could put the entire process on a silicon chip and bring the price down by an order of magnitude. He worked on his next company, Ion Torrent, in “stealth mode” for two years. At a large biotech conference in February of 2010, during a keynote, he had his largest employee walk in from the back carrying in his arms a machine the size of a desktop printer. This new sequencer was limited, compared to its bulky predecessors, in the amount of DNA it could read at one time, but it cost only fifty thousand dollars, and promised to bring sequencing capability to labs and medical centers that couldn’t otherwise have afforded it. Six months after its theatrical début, Ion Torrent was sold to Life Technologies for a total of about seven hundred and twenty-five million dollars. Rothberg bought a boat, he told me, as night fell on the marsh and the black water below was lit with the bright neon of the Gene Machine logo, and installed a high-backed throne on the bow of the sundeck—a reminder, he says, that things tend to work out in the end. His mind was in some Aegean port, and he didn’t seem to notice the vicious clouds of stinging gnats. “I cruise into a new place,” he said, “and think about how glad I was that I was fired.”

Rothberg’s biotech incubator, 4Catalyzer, originally encompassed four startups; last year, he added three more, including Homodeus. The endeavor, which includes a popular café named after his father and a garden named after his mother, has the feel of a personal micronation. Rothberg prides himself on his ability to identify and recruit talent from academia, finance, and the health-care industry, and in the process has essentially re-created his own jostling family under cover of startup cultivation. Each company also has a connection to his actual family. When Rothberg bought his eldest daughter a watch that was supposed to warn of seizures, it produced so many false alarms that he decided to throw it away and start his own epilepsy firm. (He has also underwritten a variety of research labs and drug trials over the years, especially for rare diseases; the immunosuppressant that has left his daughter particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 emerged from a development program he and his wife funded twenty years ago.)

Rothberg has come, over time, to recognize his own administrative shortcomings, and for the COVID-19 project he hired some proven mercenaries for help. For financing, he brought in Emil Michael, best known for his role as the money man at Uber, and as C.E.O. he enlisted the aid of a high-ranking executive at a major Silicon Valley firm who preferred that his involvement not yet be a matter of public record, leaving Rothberg free to play a more expansive, oracular role. He prophesied a future in which his kits would be on sale at every Walgreens and CVS, a world in which self-testing has become one more morning ritual between brushing our teeth and putting on a pot of coffee. You might test all visitors to your home the way he tests all visitors to his boat. And, as he told his investors, their product had long-term post-pandemic potential: what he first called “COVID Detect” was quickly reimagined as Detect, a flexible diagnostic platform that could easily be retooled to identify cases of the flu, respiratory syncytial virus, and a variety of other maladies.

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