Most yacht owners buy a boat to escape the trappings of work. Jonathan Rothberg did the opposite. The geneticist spent so much time conducting research aboard his family yacht that he wound up buying a shadow vessel and converted it into a floating laboratory.
It might seem odd, then, to describe the entrepreneur as a devoted family man, but that’s the truth.
“Every one of my companies was started because of somebody I love,” Rothberg says, sweeping a thick mop of brown hair back from his face. “They’re not random start-ups.”
With 100 patents to his name and $2.3 billion raised in seed capital to date, the 59-year-old Rothberg made his name inventing high-speed, “next-gen” DNA sequencing. He now spends months at a time aboard his two boats: the 180-foot (55-meter) Amels Limited Editions Gene Machine and the 182-foot (56-meter) Damen support vessel Gene Chaser.
“Ninety-five percent of all the work is done on Gene Chaser. I tell my family 100 percent, but I do just a little bit of computational stuff on Gene Machine when nobody’s watching,” he says with a smile.
Rothberg is vocal on social media, but likes to keep his personal life private. He’s a workaholic, but is happiest when spending time with his kids. The setup he’s created facilitates all of that nicely.
Usually, the two vessels cruise together, with the high-tech lab just a tantalizing sea swim from the spoils of lingering alfresco lunches with his wife, Bonnie, who is a physician with a Ph.D. in epidemiology from Yale University, and their five children.
It wasn’t always this way. The Rothbergs are a family of self-confessed nerds who love spending time together and carrying out science experiments at sea, but they’re not yachties.
Recreational boating was as far as it went for Rothberg, who grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. Long Island Sound was on his doorstep, and he cruised there aboard the family’s 25-footer. Later, he chartered bareboats with his brother. But he soon swapped oceans for landlocked labs, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with an option in biomedical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. He went on to earn advanced degrees from Yale. In 1991, while still a student there, he founded CuraGen, one of the world’s first genomics companies.
“I wanted to be an entrepreneur and change the way drugs were made,” he says. “Back then, that wasn’t something somebody did right out of school.”
With only two investors, he scraped together $16 million in federal grants and went cap-in-hand to his parents and siblings. “I have six brothers and sisters, and very supportive parents,” he says. “They all invested money into my idea at 50 cents a share. Turns out the idea was good.”
He flashes a wide smile, one leg cocked up, Bermuda shorts billowing. He’s relaxing in the Miami sun, a bottle of Coca-Cola on the table reflected in his blue mirrored Ray-Bans. He’s about to open a new incubator site alongside his existing ones in Boston, Taiwan, Connecticut, San Diego and San Francisco, and is on the hunt for programmers, engineers, chemists and molecular biologists. “We’re gonna have a giant hackathon and find the best people to hire,” he says with genuine excitement.
With CuraGen, Rothberg was on the leading edge of genome science making drugs for cancer. In 1999, the company went public, and stock went to $256 a share. By the next year, CuraGen had a market cap of $5 billion.
“My family helped out ’cause they love me. Who knew they’d make 500 times on their investment?” he says with a laugh. “So, my parents went and bought a yacht, a Westport 112. They named it Lucky Seven, as they have seven children. And that’s how it started.”
He went on to create 454 Life Sciences, a subsidiary of CuraGen, after his son, Noah, was born not breathing.
“At that stage in life, I thought I was on top of the world,” he says. “I was an entrepreneur with my own company that I’d taken public with one of the best stocks on the Nasdaq. But when Noah was rushed into ICU, I wasn’t interested in a generic map of the human genome. I wanted to know what was wrong with my son.”
The experience drove Rothberg to invent high-speed DNA sequencing. It led to the publication of the first entire individual human genome, for which President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2015.
His next company, Ion Torrent, manufactured the smallest personal genome machine and cheapest DNA sequencer in the world. He sold the company in 2010 for several hundred million dollars, at which point, he, too, “went and bought a boat”: a Westport 130, the original Gene Machine.
The Westport 130 gave the Rothbergs a taste for the high seas, but they soon wanted more. The family likes to hike, climb and swim at every given chance. They go on missions looking for shipwrecked German submarines and find them. Upgrading to the Amels 180 delivered a 4,500-nautical-mile range to “cruise to the ends of the Earth.” Rothberg’s daughter also liked the look of the boat’s Hermès leather.
In 2017, they cruised Gene Machine to 10 countries in 71 days, clocking 9,000 nautical miles. Starting in Monaco, they visited Spain, Portugal, Denmark and England before heading to Norway and the Arctic. The polar regions proved to be a turning point.
“The glaciers were melting so fast, I saw the crew take a shower in the waterfall running off one,” he says. “I thought: That water’s been frozen for 40,000 years. We’d better put a lab on the boat and do something about it.”
Gene Machine’s onboard laboratory started out modest. It was just a lab bench, a desk and a bit of equipment in the bridge deck lounge. An intern worked alongside Rothberg’s daughter, sampling water in the onboard DNA sequencer. “I was looking for things I could use to mitigate climate change,” he says.
That work continued until 2020, when Covid-19 arrived and Rothberg loaded the boat with equipment and interns. From March to October, they developed what is now a best-selling, FDA-authorized molecular home test for Covid called Detect.
“We worked day and night. But it got to be too much,” he says. “Not for me, but for anybody else in the family that wanted to enjoy the boat.”
Enjoyment of the boat usually takes the shape of paragliding above glaciers, spotting polar bears and reindeer, and making memories under the Northern Lights. When they’re not on the beach barbecuing their fresh catch of the day, the family is in the water swimming with whales.
So, Rothberg took delivery of Gene Chaser and spent a month outfitting it with a molecular biology laboratory, including 3D printers and a full machine shop. The vessel accommodates 11 guest researchers in addition to four full-time researchers who live aboard. The family got its boat back, and Rothberg got a new lab.
Reflecting on his life’s work, Rothberg always notes the influence of family. In 2011, when his daughter, Alana, faced issues with her kidneys, he developed a monitoring ultrasound on a microchip under the company Butterfly Network. The subsequent Butterfly IQ—a handheld ultrasound machine—has been to space twice, once with NASA, and once with SpaceX on resupply missions to the International Space Station. Rothberg tweeted in 2021: “My invention is out of this world!”
The billions of dollars his inventions have made are rich rewards, but the driving force is people. His people.
“I don’t operate a life-work balance,” he says. “When we take a trip to the Bahamas, I’m working 10-hour days, but between those shifts we’re jet skiing, relaxing and bonding. Nobody works harder than when they’re working for their family. I get to spend a lot of time with my five children. I have the best of both worlds, and I love what I do.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue.