Running Out Of Data Storage Space? This Startup Says The Answer Lies In DNA

The DNAli founding team is (from left) Kyle Tomek, Albert Keung and James Tuck. The group has strong NC State ties.

At current rates of global data storage generation—and sticking with current storage technology—humans will have to cover the entire surface of the planet with data storage centers by the year 2060, according to DNAli Data Technologies Co-Founder Kyle Tomek.

It’s a startling fact many aren’t aware of, and it is what has fueled Tomek and other NC State researchers to create a solution in their startup, Raleigh-based DNAli.

Five years ago, as a grad student, Tomek joined NC State professors (and Co-Founders) Albert Keung and James Tuck on a collaborative project looking at DNA-based data storage. Now DNAli has taken off into full business development mode as they develop a product that satisfies customer needs in the marketplace.

By using DNA strands for data storage, DNAli creates DNA-based hard drives starting with just a file on a computer. Any company that works with large data sets will be able to save an extensive amount of data in a DNA molecule that is around 100,000 times denser than current storage options—and thus far, far smaller.

“We can take a data storage facility that’s a million square feet and put it into something the size of basically your pinky,” Tomek said.

Beyond space constraints, there are other benefits to this type of data storage: durability and continued relevance in the coming years, coupled with low maintenance costs.

“It’s going to remain relevant for humans forever because we’re DNA-based life forms,” Tomek said, “so it won’t ever go out of style like a floppy disk or a CD would.”

The current state of the technology means that it is still impractical to store massive data sets in DNA right now because it’s not instantly and easily accessible, but it will get there, Tomek said. Currently, DNAli is ready to serve the archival data storage market, with customers able upload their data to a web platform that houses the DNA strands with all their stored information.

“That long-term vision of data storage is still there, but that scale is kind of impractical at this point,” Tomek said. “So we are brainstorming and trying to find shorter-term revenue stream generators, with the technologies we have in different markets like biotech, that will still serve as a stepping stone to that larger-scale data storage.”

Encoding data in strands of DNA means massive amounts of data can be stored in much less physical space than current methods.

There are several market verticals for these types of archival data services. Banking and finance, government records, pharmaceutical companies with clinical trial data and healthcare records are just a few ways in which long-term DNA data storage could come in handy. All of these sectors have legal mandates requiring them to store data for years or decades at a time, making the smaller, low-maintenance option of DNAli ideal.

As DNAli looks for pilot customers, they’ve gained traction at several NC State entrepreneurship programs. Taking home third place in the NC State eGames Daugherty track landed a $10,000 award. DNAli is also participating this summer in NC State’s Andrews Launch Accelerator, which has brought along some non-dilutive funding as well. Previously, they took part in the Nucleate Accelerator—the Triangle is one of 10 locations of the nationwide program—and won free lab space for a year from BioLabs NC in Durham.

Throughout the business journey that began several years ago with DNAli’s inception, Tomek said the trio of co-founders had to learn to evolve from technical founders approaching a science project to focusing on product development and fulfilling customer needs.

They’ve also weathered a pandemic, which surprisingly made it so DNAli can more easily can chat with potential customers and mentors across the country in a virtual environment. And with more virtual data being recorded over Zoom, more people are opening up their eyes to the fact that traditional data storage options are dwindling.

“People are saving and storing more and more information and potentially running into an issue with having to delete data that they wouldn’t have wanted to before,” Tomek said. “Our product would allow them to theoretically store almost unlimited data for a very long time.”

“Our big mission is to really augment the data-storage-center process as it is,” Tomek added. “People are having to prioritize and triage what data they can save or what they think is important, potentially losing out on valuable information.”

DNAli could also usher in a new era of sustainability when it comes to data storage. Traditionally, large data storage centers use diesel generators, a water source and take up large plots of land that could instead be used as parks or neighborhoods.

“The more and more we save, the more and more impact we have on the environment,” Tomek said. “These data storage centers are really large facilities with a large footprint, both physically and a carbon footprint.”

About Suzanne Blake 362 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. Before working at GrepBeat, Suzanne attended UNC Chapel Hill, obtaining a degree in journalism and political science. Previously, she wrote for CNBC, QSR Magazine, FSR Magazine and The Daily Tar Heel.