The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has highlighted two big weaknesses in our national economy that have long lain dormant and out of public view. The first is our nation’s reliance on foreign manufacturing, and the second is the fragility of our small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).
Commentators, investors, and public figures have long written about the potential for industrial synbio companies, such as Zymergen, to bring about a resurgence in domestic manufacturing. But few have focused on a mechanism for synthetic biology to reinvigorate the domestic SMB manufacturing sector.
Most of us are familiar with the franchise business structure used by our favorite fast-food chains: a franchisee pays a fixed fee and a percent of profits in exchange for a business road-map, materials, and support from a parent organization. But we’re probably not as familiar with the economic impact of the franchise model. First, one out of every seven American businesses is a franchise. Second, franchises are consistently more durable than the average small business. By providing a tried-and-true model, franchises demonstrate vastly higher five-year survival rates than your average SMB.
For some reason, the basic franchise model has not yet been expanded to manufacturing. Perhaps this is due to the large investment in specialized equipment required in traditional manufacturing. But industrial synthetic biology—the bio-manufacturing of physical goods from fuels to textiles to food products—has a handful of characteristics that lend itself perfectly to a franchise model.
Why biomanufacturing is a good fit for franchising
- Affordable, uniform hardware: At its core, biomanufacturing uses the same fermentation technology and hardware used in any brewery or distillery. This equipment can be made uniformly and relatively cheaply. Furthermore, the modular nature of this equipment enables the entrepreneur to scale up-or-down flexibly.
- Substitutable outputs: By varying the microbes and starting materials you feed into your instrumentation, you can produce a dizzyingly wide array of products
- Trainable skillset: The core skill-set needed to operate fermentation equipment is not overly technical and can easily be taught to franchisees and their employees.
So how would a synthetic biology manufacturing franchise work?
Three components would be needed to set-up a biomanufacturing franchise: hardware (i.e., fermentation tanks), reusables and consumables (like microbes and feedstock), and training.
A couple of organizations are already well-equipped to supply the necessary reusables and associated training. For example, an organization such as Ginkgo Bioworks could offer franchisable microbes to produce various goods. This would enable the franchiser (Ginkgo, in this case) to capitalize on revenue from these bugs without having to build out a manufacturing line for every possible product that could be made with their technology. Instead, small innovators with a passion for a certain product market could drive it to market success.
Now that we have a supplier for the reusables, only a franchiser with a modernized hardware offering would be necessary to implement an out-of-the-box biomanufacturing franchise. This partner could develop a modular biomanufacturing hardware set-up that is scalable to size up or down as the entrepreneur sees fit, and flexible enough to accommodate various microbes and synthetic biology “recipes” by allowing control over fermentation conditions such as temperature, pH, pressure, and so on.
Finally realizing distributed biomanufacturing
Equipped with this infrastructure and a “menu” of microbe-manufacturable products, franchisees could select which products they would like to produce at any given time depending on the needs of the market and their purchasing networks. In this way, industrial synthetic biology could give the nation a responsive, flexible, and distributed biomanufacturing ecosystem.20