Floating Science Lab Visits Sag Harbor

Jonathan Rothberg, owner of the Gene Chaser, said the 180-foot "yacht support vessel" is a laboratory, Holiday Inn Express and recreational retreat for scientists, investors and his family. Michael Wright

In a place that sees a lot of head-turning yachts, an industrial-looking vessel crawling with recreational “toys” and people carrying laptops and working manufacturing machines turned even more heads than usual over the past week in Sag Harbor.

A quick Google search of the yacht’s name, Gene Chaser, revealed to many that it is the transport, and office of sorts, for genetic science innovator Jonathan Rothberg, Ph.D., and the roving band of scientists, engineers and thinkers — as well as their families — who work with and for him on a broad variety of innovative medical startups.

“Gene Chaser is the world’s first floating start-up incubator,” Dr. Rothberg beamed while strolling the passageways of the 180-foot Gene Chaser’s belowdecks — past scientists working in molecular biology laboratories, 3D printers, machine and model shops and cabins named after the characters from the book “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” for obvious reasons. “We have accommodations for four full-time scientists and 11 guests. We can start companies here, we can develop prototypes here and we can use it as a retreat for the people in the company.”

The Gene Chaser, which is moored in Sag Harbor this week, was set up by owner by Jonathan Rothberg to be a floating scientific incubator for medical startups. The 180-foot yacht is outfitted with science labs, 3D-printers and gene sequencing machines, along with a plethora of recreational “toys” to keep the scientists working aboard it entertained in their down time.

In 2021 alone, Dr. Rotherberg’s group will take three new companies public. One of them, Butterfly IQ (BFLY), and the handheld whole-body scanner that it released last year has already been hailed as a revolutionary innovation that will change medical practices in poor and developing countries and had one of its devices sent to the International Space Station. On a countertop in a Gene Chaser lab sits a pile of boxes of viral testing kits, developed by Dr. Rotherberg’s innovators to make testing for COVID-19 something that can be done by anyone, at home. The test kits can be retooled and produced in mass for any virus in about two weeks, he said.

The Gene Chaser is also a wandering playground of sorts that accompanies Dr. Rotherberg’s other 180-foot yacht, Gene Machine. With four 1,400-horse-power Caterpillar motors, it can charge through the ocean and more than 20 mph, bouncing between Mr. Rotherberg’s native Connecticut, Europe and the Caribbean. On its aft decks sit the many “toys,” as he calls them, available to the crew and guests: from a wake surfing boat to jet-powered surf boards to ATVs and a landing craft to carry them to remote shorelines.

“We like keeping our scientists happy,” Dr. Rothberg, who is eager to spread his gospel of altruistic innovation via Twitter, @jmrothberg, said, while walking past a 3D printer where one of his sons and an engineer were building a hovercraft prototype below a neon “Electric Future” sign on the Gene Chaser’s aft deck. “If you want to change the world and you want to help people you love, you have to make sure the people who are leading your projects love it. Gene Chaser is a great way to recruit, a great way to encourage and a great way to inspire.”