Zymergen Goes Public to Make Tomorrow Today
by Andreas Stavropoulos
It’s been a tremendous journey for the company, but the team has stayed true to their original vision of harnessing the power of biology at scale, even as they have faced and overcome major challenges.
Zymergen is a “biofacturing” company. It leverages the power of nature’s biological processes, along with the company’s ability to rapidly modify, test, and scale up production of molecules and microorganisms, to produce useful materials at half the time and a tenth of the cost of traditional chemical manufacturing methods. In this way, mass production of these materials can be done without purpose-built, capital-intensive (and usually “dirty”) infrastructure, toxic chemicals, or wasted energy and byproducts.
This is not a new idea — one of the promises of synthetic biology has always been to develop alternative, scalable, cleaner paths to mass manufacturing and break the dependence on fossil fuels. After all, the theory goes, nature has perfected biological pathways to “manufacturing” extremely complex forms of living matter over millennia of natural selection. If only we could isolate parts of these complex chains of interactions and apply them to useful endpoints. For example, new forms of plastic that don’t require petroleum byproducts, or eco-friendly bioactive molecules we can use in skincare, say, then we should be able to do all that cheaper and faster than traditional chemical manufacturing. Nothing seems wrong with this picture!
The problem lies in the scale-up step, both horizontally (being able to do this for many products at the same time) and vertically (“stacking” breakthrough insights on top of one another to go from simple inputs all the way to complex final outputs at a significant cost advantage). Many companies in the past, either through smarts or luck, have been able to isolate one such process to make one commodity product (ethanol), only to find that their fortunes then became dependent on the market dynamics for that single commodity. And others, primarily scientific labs, have found expensive, labor-intensive ways to produce multiple interesting endpoints from a single synthetic organism acting as a catalyst, only to fail to meet the end-to-end cost and volume requirements to spin something out in the “real world” of mass manufacturing.
Zymergen was built in an interdisciplinary way to solve both these scale-up challenges. As often happens with breakthrough companies, the insights needed to solve really hard problems usually come from multiple different domains that need to be combined together. Zymergen is a genomics company at heart, but at the same time a robotic automation powerhouse and a machine learning center of excellence. By combining these disciplines, they create a closed loop of machine-aided hypothesis generation, parallelized robotic-enabled testing, which then feeds better results into the AI algorithms to predict the next batch of hypotheses. The test results of what works with what, what’s a dead end, etc. become a proprietary database of insights that can be leveraged from one product effort to another.
It takes a special team to bring this vision to life. I had the privilege of working with Josh Hoffman as young associates at McKinsey ages ago. We were in the same class entering the firm in 1997 — I will never forget the conversations we had about life, the universe, and everything back then. By 1999, the world around us was exploding with opportunities brought upon by the internet and the dawning of the information age, so we both made our way out of consulting and into tech entrepreneurship in pretty short order. The three Zymergen co-founders, Josh along with Zach and Jed, shared their vision with us early on but we were a little late on the trigger finger — thankfully, we saw the light and joined the investment syndicate in their series B round. It’s been a tremendous journey for the company since then, but the team has stayed true to their original vision of harnessing the power of biology at scale, even as they have faced and overcome major challenges.
Congratulations to the whole team at Zymergen! We could not be more excited to see what they have yet in store for the world as they “make tomorrow today.”