If Ginkgo Bioworks has its way, robots and software will someday handle most of the genetic engineering work currently performed by scientists sitting at lab benches.
Ginkgo is contributing to that shift. Today the synthetic biology company announced an expansion of its headquarters in Boston’s Seaport neighborhood, including a second, larger lab space for designing and making custom yeast and other microbes. Xconomy toured both spaces—dubbed Bioworks1 and Bioworks2—earlier this week (see photo slideshow above).
“This is what the future of genetic engineering looks like,” says Ginkgo co-founder and CEO Jason Kelly, standing in the center of his company’s first lab.
He is surrounded by computer screens and high-end equipment that uses software-controlled robotics to carry out various tasks, such as a line of mechanical pipettes distributing liquid mixtures into vials. It’s like an “eight-armed grad student,” Kelly quips.
Kelly’s eight-year-old company didn’t invent the robotic technologies, but it spent its first several years figuring out how to automate a lot of manual lab bench processes and developing software to better track and manage lab operations, he says. “People don’t realize it, but software is the most important part of this,” Kelly says.
The past couple of years were about proving Ginkgo’s ability to design and test custom microbes and signing up an initial group of about 20 customers who have hired Ginkgo to work on 40 projects, Kelly says. The company’s microorganisms are engineered to secrete products such as rose-scented oil that goes into perfumes and sweeteners for beverages. The bigger idea is to create new kinds of biological machines in food, health, and other industries.
Ginkgo also raised a truckload of money from investors over the past year and a half: $154 million in total, including a $100 million round announced in June. Its investors include Y Combinator, Viking Global, Felicis Ventures, and OS Fund.
Since then, the startup has struck deals with new customers, including Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland Company (NYSE: ADM), and industry partners, such as Emeryville, CA-based Amyris (NASDAQ: AMRS), a more established competitor to Ginkgo. (More on that collaboration in a minute.)
Today Ginkgo announced another partnership, with San Diego-based Genomatica. That company develops and licenses bio-based processes for producing widely used chemicals from raw materials other than petroleum, such as sugars.
“Ginkgo’s foundries bring tremendous capability in organism engineering and complement our strengths in whole-process design, computation, and manufacturing scale-up,” Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling said in a press release.
Ginkgo’s second lab and office space is down the hall from its first, an expansion intended to help it keep up with the increase in business. Bioworks2 is about 18,000 square feet, divided almost equally between offices and lab operations. The second lab is roughly double the size of the first, Kelly says.
The company says the bigger footprint allows it to test thousands of versions of a custom microbe at any given time, which means it can create new organisms more quickly and cheaply than with current methods. “We can iterate through designs a lot faster than a traditional life sciences company,” Kelly says.
But Ginkgo is still a relatively young company working to establish its credibility in synthetic biology, an industry that is also still trying to prove itself. That seems to be part of the thinking behind Ginkgo’s partnership with Amyris, a 13-year-old company that engineers yeast and uses the organisms as “living factories” to convert plant-based sugars into hydrocarbon molecules used by customers to create products in cosmetics, fragrances, flavors, cleaners, lubricants, and more.
The deal between Ginkgo and Amyris involves an initial three-year agreement to co-develop and manufacture bio-based cultured ingredients to be used in customers’ flavors, fragrances, cosmetics, and nutritional products. Ginkgo will also pay $20 million to license some of Amyris’s yeast technology, Kelly says.
Kelly believes teaming up will help Ginkgo and Amyris make stronger pitches to prospective customers and boost business for both companies.
“It’s an important leap for an industry to make where people achieve a certain level of confidence that ‘if I interact with these companies, I’ll get what I want,’” Kelly says. “If you feel like every project is an R&D project with a small startup that may or may not work out, it’s hard to get real dollars and real investment from the leadership of these companies.”
The deal also means Ginkgo can tap into Amyris’s larger manufacturing capabilities. Kelly says Amyris has a facility in Brazil with fermentation tanks that have 1.2 million liters of production capacity—essentially a big brewery that churns out bio-based chemicals instead of beer.
“We’re now able to go to that flavor and fragrance market and say, ‘You don’t have to build your own fermentation facility,’” Kelly says.
Asked if Amyris and Ginkgo discussed a merger, Kelly says “certainly we talked about a variety of different stuff.”
But he says it makes more sense for the synthetic biology industry to “establish an ecosystem of specialized companies that can interact together.” Kelly says that includes synthetic DNA suppliers (Twist Bioscience, Gen9), designers of bioengineering systems (Genomatica), custom microorganism designers and prototype makers (Ginkgo), and larger-scale manufacturers of genetically engineered products (Amyris).
“Then you can all invest in what you’re best at,” Kelly argues. “If you can pull that off, as a whole, the ecosystem is more effective than any individual company trying to do everything.” He adds, “But it’s early days for this.”