This is pretty amazing.
Ginkgo Gulps $100M to Build Synthetic Food, Fragrance Business
Ginkgo Bioworks sits at the intersection of synthetic biology, software, robotics, and advanced manufacturing, making it one of the more intriguing startups in Boston. Now, a fresh round of $100 million in venture capital also makes it one of the area’s biggest technology bets.
Ginkgo has raised $154 million from investors since March 2015. The previous year, it participated in the Y Combinator program, the Silicon Valley startup accelerator known for investing in and nurturing software startups like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit. Ginkgo was Y Combinator’s first biotech investment.
Ginkgo makes custom yeast and other microbes, which its customers use to make new products. Examples of the engineered products secreted by the bacteria include rose-scented oil that goes into perfumes and sweeteners for beverages.
Its more speculative projects include developing probiotic bacteria intended to fight infections in humans. It also plans to supply active pharmaceutical ingredients and other tools to drug makers, co-founder and CEO Jason Kelly says.
Ginkgo is positioning itself to play a prominent role in new manufacturing methods across a variety of sectors—including, if synthetic biology plays out as Ginkgo and some industry experts predict, programming living organisms to create more sophisticated computing devices. (More on that later.)
“We see ourselves as creating a new industry—the organism industry—which we believe will ultimately serve a surprising breadth of markets,” Kelly says. “Our view on it is what’s coming in engineered biology is going to be as big as what you saw in information technology in the last century.”
Before such optimism comes true, the synthetic biology industry must first recover from huge bets made on biofuels in the past decade that didn’t pan out. Some companies in this sector, like Evolva and Amyris, are paring back ambitions—building businesses on less groundbreaking products like flavors and fragrances—while working their way up to bigger problems. That’s Ginkgo’s approach as well, which one of its investors defended in a Huffington Post op-ed last year.
“For now, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on startups that will generate revenue while moving up the complexity curve faster and more predictably than anyone else,” OS Fund founder Bryan Johnson wrote. “Along the way, they’ll make major contributions to how we do science.”
That’s not to say everyone has curtailed far-out, even controversial, ideas for synthetic biology. A group of scientists that include Harvard University genetics pioneer George Church are proposing the assembly of a synthetic human genome. Their closed-door meeting earlier this year, followed last week by a proposal (and a call for $100 million in funding), have stirred intense debate about the ethics and feasibility of such a project. (Church says he doesn’t have any direct ties to Ginkgo, but he holds equity stakes in San Francisco-based Twist Bioscience and Gen9 of Cambridge, MA, both suppliers of synthetic DNA material to Ginkgo.)
Ginkgo has signed deals with 15 customers to work on about 30 projects so far, Kelly says, but he declined to share revenues. (The company is privately held.) Its customers include Japanese food and pharmaceuticals manufacturer Ajinomoto and French fragrance and flavor company Robertet.
Customers pay Ginkgo an undisclosed amount of money up front, but the company will primarily generate revenue from royalties on its customers’ products, Kelly says. Its first royalty-generating product should hit the market this year, he adds—a fragrance ingredient made by Robertet.
Ginkgo will use the $100 million windfall to grow from 90 to at least 140 people over the next year, and it will expand into a second “foundry” in Boston’s Seaport district, where robotics and other automated technologies will help manufacture microorganisms more cheaply and quickly than scientists ever could working by hand at a lab bench....MUCH MORE