We believe that biology is the most powerful technology on the planet and has the potential to fundamentally disrupt every part of GDP over the next twenty years.
Historically, biology has been complex, expensive and taken a lot of time to engineer. However, US biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks is finding a solution to this challenge and is on a mission to make biology easier to engineer. In fact, it has raised more than $430 million in private investment to build its foundries in Boston, US, in pursuit of this mission.
Here, Liz Gyekye, senior content manager at Bio-Based World News catches up with Matthew McKnight, chief commercial officer at Ginkgo Bioworks.
Liz Gyekye (LG): Whats the story behind Ginkgo Bioworks (@Ginkgo)?
Matthew McKnight (MM): Tom Knight, one of our founders, was a pioneer in the field of computer science at MIT. After helping drive the semiconductor revolution, he took an interest in biology when he came to the realisation that, like computers, biology seemed to be fundamentally programmable it was A-C-G-T vs 0s and 1s through advances in the tools required for reading and writing DNA. With the interaction of computer science and biology, there was an opportunity to leverage that code more effectively to essentially programme the building blocks of life at scale. Thus, in 2008, Tom teamed up with four of his students to bring this idea to life, and Ginkgo was born.
Ginkgo is fundamentally a tools company and since 2008 weve been on a mission to make biology faster, cheaper and easier to engineer. Weve raised more than $430 million in private investment to build our foundries in Boston in pursuit of this mission. With an unparalleled genetic codebase – essentially DNA big data, cutting edge capabilities in hardware and software automation, and a team of experts to run it – we engineer biology at scale for clients across multiple industries, from food to pharma to consumer electronics.
LG: What job did you do before joining Ginkgo?
MM: I spent the early part of my career at a data and analytics platform company called Palantir. There I saw the power of data to solve hard problems across multiple industries. From Palantir I jumped into the private equity world for several years where I focused on investing and building life sciences industry services companies. Along the way I was introduced to Ginkgo and their mission grounded in the interaction of computer science and biology. Ginkgos belief in the power that engineered biology has to impact every area of GDP and its mission to build the platform that makes that possible was extremely compelling. I personally invested in Ginkgo at that point and then couldnt stay away.
LG: Whats been the biggest challenge in growing the company?
MM: Biology has historically been very hard and expensive to engineer. The traditional approach has involved PhDs at a lab bench, and scaling experiments and replicating results meant adding headcount and lots of trial and error. This dynamic made using biology hard to scale as a real commercial solution for most industries. To make it easier to engineer, the amount of effort we had to put into automating lab protocols has been massive. This is not quick or easy and has taken time, but over the past 4 years we have dramatically expanded output and per unit efficiency. On average, were doubling our output every six months and doubling our efficiency every year. The scale effect has been happening after much hard work.
LG: Whats coming up next for your company? What are Ginkgo Bioworks’ priorities for 2019?
MM: As mentioned, we believe that biology is the most powerful technology on the planet and has the potential to fundamentally disrupt every part of GDP over the next twenty years. In our quest to unlock that potential, were continually strengthening our platform capabilities and genetic expertise to support new applications.
More specifically, last autumn we opened our most recent foundry, Bioworks 4, to add capabilities in mammalian cell engineering, which can be employed in the pharma and therapeutics space to conquer human disease. We were also recently involved in the launch of a new operating company called Motif Ingredients, built on the Ginkgo platform, that will power the next generation of animal-free proteins and other sustainable ingredients for plant-based food innovators. Through our partnership with Cronos, were going to enable more cannabis innovation in consumer products by finding and manufacturing hard-to-source cannabinoid molecules in our foundries, which is much more economically viable than sourcing via plant extraction. Were also working with more and more consumer brands that are seeing our technology as a key enabler for their sustainability initiatives, from bioremediation to plastic degradation to more sustainable textiles.
LG: What advice would you give to someone else looking to launch their own company/product in this space?
MM: We interact with several companies that try to build their own biotech, even though thats not a core capability. They are often trying to make biotech work in a silo, without the benefit of deep learnings or infrastructure to scale their efforts efficiently. As we just discussed, biology is not fundamentally easy to engineer, and automation and scale are really necessary to make a successful outcome feasible for most of our clients. By instead shifting their engineering efforts to happen on top of the Ginkgo platform, it allows them to focus on their bigger vision and what they do best and let our expertise and scale work in their favour. So, give us a call!
LG: Whats your favourite sustainable/bio-based product?
MM: Impossible Burger. They are using biology to achieve the big hairy goal of fundamentally changing consumer preferences to do right by the planet, and theyre showing you can do it without compromising what consumers really want – a great tasting burger experience.
At Ginkgo, were also using biology to transform how industries approach some of the most pressing issues. For example, Joyn, our joint venture with Bayer Crop Sciences, is engineering microbes that live in soil to help crops fertilise themselves, reducing the need for nitrogen fertilisers. Were also putting greater focus on alternative proteins, novel therapeutics and circular economy solutions for consumer brands. We believe that leveraging the power of Ginkgos platform, we have a high probability of successfully bringing world-changing products to market in these areas in the near future.
Matthew McKnight will be speaking at this year’sWorld Bio Markets Conference, the leading assembly for the bio-based economy, which takes place from 1-3 April in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.