Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based DNA writer and designer company, launched in 2008, is already one of the largest DNA writers in the world. It is expected to make over $20m in revenue in 2017.
Ginkgo’s success is based on an innovative technology that uses yeast as a base to make all kinds of substances, including perfumes, cosmetics and sweeteners, from microbugs. This technology can be used across a whole host of consumer and industrial products, enabling customers to grow rather than manufacture better products.
The company is currently working on a project with DARPA to treat antibiotic-resistant germs, using designer microbes to convert CO2 emissions into fuel and it is somehow making yeast smell like roses. It has also teamed up with the German chemical conglomerate Bayer to turn crops into their own mini-fertilizer manufacturers.
The rapid growth of startup companies like Gingko Bioworks, merging robotics with biology, is turning the biotech space into one of the brightest spots to invest in. Venture Capital companies like Google Ventures, Greylock and others also seem keen, pouring millions of dollars into a myriad of similar projects.
As scientists move from mimicking nature in the lab to redesigning it, the true benefits, as well as consequences, of synthetic biology are still to be seen. A dose of caution is to be applied to these visionary ventures, as it is enough to look back only as far as 2008, to find a sobering reminder of startups promising to use synthetic biology to produce biofuels from pond scum. However, the microorganisms behaved differently in factory settings than in labs and when oil prices fell, several of the startups failed.
Today the industry believes it has better tools for editing, measuring results, and automating the way chemicals and microorganisms are produced in large quantities. This time biotech companies are focusing on materials, proponents assert they have higher margins and fewer market fluctuations than fuels, and specialty chemicals. However, any attempt to engineer the genetic code of living beings also raises ethical concerns: first over safety, and even more so, over success. Time will show if Gingko’s promise to disrupt everything, including sectors that the traditional tech industry has not been able to access, as it grows and gets better at designing biology, will come true.