Ginkgo Bioworks: The industrial revolution is coming to the biology lab!
Data! Robots! Microbes! The revolution is coming!
The founder of Ginkgo Bioworks has no small ambition: to bring the industrial revolution to the still very manual biology lab. Powerful software and robots, operated by a small army of engineers – goodbye scientists! – are at the center of this new way of manipulating life. Ginkgo’s long-term goal is to use synthetic biology (one popular definition of synthetic biology is “designing and constructing biological devices, biological systems, and biological machines for useful purposes”) to produce any compound that can be synthetized in a living organism.
Biotech companies face major challenges when it comes to engineering living organisms. One of these challenges is to overcome the sheer complexities of metabolic pathways used to produce any molecule. To have a microorganism produce a specific compound, scientists have to work with the endogenous metabolism of the host and add the necessary genes that will catalyze the synthesis of the said compound. This process of trial and error usually takes time, resources, and very monotonous lab work. Another challenge is to scale up the process to be able to produce the molecule in large enough quantities in a process that is economically sustainable.
Let’s see why Ginkgo Bioworks is such a well-positioned company to overcome these challenges through its product selection, its business model and its operating model.
How does Ginkgo choose which molecules to work on?
Ginkgo develops projects through strategic partnerships with large industrial players that bring funds and market opportunities. Depending on the agreement, Ginkgo and its industrial partner decide on the final product (molecule or microorganism producing the molecule), whether it is produced at scale by Ginkgo or outsourced, and what amount of the R&D effort relies on Ginkgo alone. Ginkgo then gets paid with a percentage of sales of the final product. This business model allows the firm to focus on the biology and the design of microorganisms rather than market and commercialization strategies.
Ginkgo’s operating model relies on two main capabilities that address challenges related to scale. The first is a proprietary software designed to streamline the design of gene sequences for molecular biology. Engineers from the DESIGN TEAM study the metabolic pathway allowing the synthesis of the particular compound, e.g. the molecule responsible for the smell of roses, and design the necessary steps to produce a microorganism that can reproduce it. Once they’ve settled on a design, information is passed onto the BUILD TEAM engineers. In turn, they rely on the second main asset of Ginkgo Bioworks: a large team of robots (referred to as the Foundry) capable of performing the actions of a molecular biologist. Thousands of new genetically modified strains are produced every day and fermented in small vessels. Each strain will carry the validation or rejection of a particular hypothesis. The fermentations are closely monitored and every carbon atom is accounted for with analytical tools. A subset
of well performing strains is then transferred to the TEST TEAM to be fermented at a larger
scale. The best (smelling?) of them will go to an outside lab for large fermentations and additional tests. The wealth of data produced during the successive steps is integrated through the software, abled by powerful processors, and used to design new iterations of experiments to test newly form hypotheses. At each round, new GM organisms are produced, getting the teams closer to a final product.
Talking to a head engineer at Ginkgo Bioworks, it becomes apparent that the company’s business and operating models are flexible and ready to be adapted to new strategic partners. A few things remain constant however: the reliance on the software and the automation of biology. The professed long-term dream of the founder of Ginkgo Bioworks is to treat the microbes like microchips in a computer to make “whatever the world needs”. The dream is shared by the investors who recently committed $45 million to a series B. Not your usual investors either, as Viking Global, Y Combinator, and OS Fund are part of the contributors, more used to Dot Com start ups than biotech firms.
Automating and streamlining the process of manipulating genetic materials of microorganisms have been in the minds of scientists for a long time. Ginkgo Bioworks has dramatically reduced experiment times. What would take years, if not decades, in a lab of scientists now takes a matter of months. Not to mention that Gingko automated the most tedious aspects of lab work. What Ginkgo Bioworks has created with its software, robots and partnerships is the most impressive attempt at a high-tech revolution in the lab – thought only time will reveal the true extent of the company’s innovation.
- Stinson L: Move Over, Jony Ive—Biologists Are the Next Rock Star Designers. Wired.
- Buhr S: Ginkgo Bioworks Takes On Zymergen With $45 Million In Series B Funding. Tech Crunch.
Student comments on Ginkgo Bioworks: The industrial revolution is coming to the biology lab!
Great post Jonathan! This is a very interesting company that clearly has a well-aligned business and operating model. The process of selectively designing organisms isn’t a new concept, but applying the disciplines of design, engineering and GMP seems like it offers incredible potential. Why has it taken so long for biology labs to get to the point where these processes are automated? With such a seamless operating model the potential applications seem limitless–from health to energy, food, materials and more.
Fascinating! Revelatory! Intriguing!
Really enjoyed reading about Ginkgo. This is one of the more unique posts I’ve read thus far. While it’s clear that Ginkgo is creating a great deal of societal value via automation, I think it’s also interesting to consider the value that’s being lost – e.g. salary and benefits for scientists and lab technicians that may be displaced as a result of this new model.
It’s an interesting question to consider across fields/industries — my hope is that as technology progresses the role of humans will evolve to focus on higher-value add activities, but we must recognize that the transitions might not always be clean and easy. In the face of increasing automation, we as a society will need to think carefully about how we retrain/refocus talent in order to minimize the financial impact on individuals and families. Thanks again for sharing!