Finding a startup with values that matter

At Zymergen, our mission — unlocking the power of biology — is a lofty one. We’ve recognized from the beginning that in order to reliably engineer biology we will need an approach that is equal parts automation, biology, and computation. But when we’re looking for talent to add to our growing team, we’re not looking for any one individual with deep expertise in all three — because we simply won’t find it. Instead, we’ve worked hard to build a strong culture of collaboration and intellectual diversity, so the best minds in disparate disciplines can contribute to our mission collectively.

Last year, our CTO Aaron Kimball reflected on the values that enable our collaborative approach. While we have added many new faces since then and have raised more money, the lessons Aaron learned early on still ring true today:

Finding a startup with values that matter

Published originally June 23, 2015

After a year working at Zymergen, I have come to appreciate how special our company’s culture and values are. Here’s what I’ve learned and why I love it.

I’ve been the CTO at Zymergen for a bit over a year now. We just raised $44 million and are ready to take our company to the next level. Over the past year I’ve learned about an entirely new industry, and experienced and helped build a culture that invests in teams, hard work, and shared success. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.

It’s ok to be ignorant

When I started at Zymergen, my formal training in biology amounted to a high school class I had taken 15 years ago. I hadn’t thought seriously about the area since. I have a lot of computer science training (both schooling and industry), and have focused in particular on making Big Data technology work. But I was essentially clueless when it came to biology.

By way of some background: in a nutshell, Zymergen makes microbes that make chemicals. The chemical production process is called industrial fermentation; but instead of producing alcohol, these microbes can produce anything from pharmaceutical drugs to agricultural compounds, cleaning supplies, adhesives, or other industrial products. They make these outputs because they’ve been genetically engineered to do so. Many further years of genetic engineering have gone into optimizing their efficiency at converting sugar into the target molecule. We are building our own chemical portfolio; we also help big companies with existing microbes make them more efficient.

Naturally, you might think that all of this requires a hefty dose of biology. And you’d be right — our success is contingent on a staff of world-class microbiologists who are deep in the genetic code and other specifics of esoteric bacteria and other microbes.

One of the things I’ve learned is that all of these individuals are incredibly deep in a specific focus within the broader domain of biology, but there is no such thing as a “full-stack biologist.” For each specialization someone gains, they have eschewed deep understanding of others. This means we need to hire many different experts to get the breadth of expertise we need. And everyone needs to trust one another, respect their own limits, and delegate appropriately. For their part, the biologists know about as much about software as I know about science. At Zymergen, managers and employees give one another the autonomy required to do their jobs, while simultaneously relying on each other to teach them about things they wouldn’t otherwise learn.

We are greater than the sum of our parts

Zymergen has brought together biologists, chemists, statisticians, computer scientists, and automation experts.

This meeting of the minds has resulted in incredible advances in our ability to perform the work of bioengineering. Most genetic engineering done elsewhere on microbes is done by hand: pipetting one (or perhaps 8 or 12) vials of liquid at a time into another, over and over, to mix the requisite DNA primers, cells, and other samples to effect a single genetic mutation.

At Zymergen, we have industrialized the process: liquid handling robots, computerized workflows and data capture systems, and algorithmic DNA searches can methodically and inexpensively optimize genome performance at a scale not reached just a few years ago.

A liquid handling robot operates on hundreds of samples in our lab

This is a novel capability, and one that would never be accomplished — or even articulated in a meaningful way — without bringing together a variety of experts with diverse backgrounds.

Together we can accomplish a mission

Before Zymergen, I spent 6 years working in enterprise software. The last few years were spent building machine learning systems for online retail. While the technical challenges were interesting, and my coworkers were smart, gifted people, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. As Jeff Hammerbacher once said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” For me, trying to induce people to buy more stuff online wasn’t much better. After that experience, I asked an investor I knew for an intro to something really different. And thus was I introduced to Zymergen’s founders.

The promise of industrial fermentation means less dependence on oil; creating chemicals (of which we as a society need a whole lot) from renewable agricultural resources. In addition to this mission of sustainability, at Zymergen you get to literally see the future being invented. Building out a robotic lab and automating what was once a manual process is like watching the 21st century equivalent of the industrial revolution unfold before your eyes, at Internet speed. And it’s tangible: at the end of the day, I know my work has value to people because I can see their work happening faster, and I can see — and am learning to understand — their results as well.

Zymergen has a culture of collaboration, of learning, of autonomy, and mastery. When I joined I was nervous about how little biology I understood. I’ve learned more in one year sitting next to these professional biologists than I would in any class. By the same token, they rely on me and the software engineering team to provide them with data-driven tools that none of them could design or build on their own.

The Zymergen team in Monterey, CA, June 2015

I couldn’t ask for a better place to work. If any of this resonates with you, we’d love to have you with us — see our open roles at http://www.zymergen.com/positions.php.