Last month, Ginkgo Bioworks announced the appointment of Marijn Dekkers as Chairman of its Board of Directors and strategic advisor. Dekkers has enjoyed a long and successful career in the technology and life sciences industries, beginning as a researcher at General Electric in 1985 and serving as CEO for companies ranging from Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2000 to Bayer A.G. and, most recently, as Chairman of Unilever. In his new role at Ginkgo Bioworks, he enters the world of synthetic biology. We spoke to Dekkers about a range of topics shortly after his appointment.
Why synthetic biology?
Having spent more than thirty years in the technology and pharmaceutical industries, Dekkers said: “I look for these areas that I’ve been active in, in different industries, and I see a huge number of application opportunities for every one of them.” With synthetic biology, he explained, “I can see the capability to design microbes and have them do something that otherwise is very difficult to accomplish with traditional synthetic chemistry, or by isolation of natural products. It is just tremendously promising.”
Why Ginkgo Bioworks?
With his experience and the growth in the synthetic biology sector, there were several opportunities open to Dekkers. Already familiar with the team at Ginkgo from his time as CEO of Bayer A.G., Dekker chose them because of the team. “I’m very attracted to a few things that Ginkgo is doing,” he said. While working as an advisor for them last year, he found the team “extremely smart and dynamic, and a very good group of people.”
The combination of good people to work with, what they are doing, and the effect it can have on society — it’s pretty, pretty special.
What strategy do you see that will lead to Ginkgo’s success?
Ginkgo Bioworks has developed a platform that makes it possible for other companies to work with organisms. In the case of sustainable agriculture, existing organisms in the soil biome have been modified to increase the nitrogen reaching crops at the root. In the case of food proteins, fermentation of engineered microbes is being used to produce sustainable, non-animal proteins. The nitrogen project is the Joyn Bio joint venture between Ginkgo Bioworks and Bayer A.G. The food proteins are being developed by Motif Ingredients, a company launched off the Ginkgo platform.
By bringing their technology to a partner already in the industry is a sound strategy, Dekker explained. “It could really accelerate the adoption of the application of the technology. You have the technology coming from Ginkgo, but all the market knowledge coming from the partner.” This makes it possible for Ginkgo to participate in markets without a deep familiarity with that market.
What are the risks of this partnering strategy?
The concept of partnering with a company in a specific market is strong. “But of course,” Dekker said, “when you do that, every time you open a new Pandora’s Box. It’s something new that has to be managed. You now have another partner introduced. The complexity of the business model increases and you cannot do that willy-nilly, infinitely. Successful management of those partnerships is key.”
With Bioworks4, Ginkgo expands its capabilities to genetically engineer mammalian cells – cultured human and animal cells. (Source: Ginkgo Bioworks)
What’s the greatest challenge for synthetic biology today?
Potential problems range from achieving scale to the impact of government regulation and oversight. Yet, Dekkers sees the adoption of these new capabilities by companies, establishing channels of distribution, and the need for public acceptance of products produced through the use of synthetic biology – both in the US and abroad – as the significant challenges facing the industry.
“The challenge to everybody in synthetic biology,” Dekkers said, “is that it’s not the way we used to do it. You have in many large companies, a group of R&D people who have always done it differently.”
These people haven’t had access to this type of capability. For that to change inside of these big organizations is quite hard.
This adoption can be slow, Dekkers continued, and must occur before large gains can be made.
Getting the products to the consumer is another challenge for synthetic biology. Those with the technology do not have the market knowledge, and vice versa. The partners “know what the customer really wants, and they have the channels of distribution. So that is a very important link that needs to be made for everybody in this field.”
Public acceptance of products produced using synthetic biology is essential if the possible gains are to be realized. “How do you communicate what this technology does?” Dekker said. “Does the genetic modification end up in the final product that the consumer puts in their body? That’s a big deal, whether or not, from a comfort level for the consumer, you eat or get injected with a modified organism. Was the organism used to produce the product modified without the modification part of the product itself?”
The ability to address public concerns, to forge strong alliances that blend the talents of one firm with the talents of another and the willingness to explore the possibilities brought about by synthetic biology are all part of the attraction Ginkgo Bioworks holds for Dekkers. As Chairman of the Board, he will have the opportunity to help build one of synthetic biology’s most exceptional companies.0