Ginkgo Bioworks knows just how hard it is to start a biotech. Sure, they’re synthetic biology’s first unicorn now. But it was just 2009 when co-founder Barry Canton was hoisting $20, second-hand refrigerators out of South Boston basements to build a lab.
“We want startups to focus on the research and marketing they need to make and sell a great product, without having to dig in any dumpsters for thermocyclers,” says another Ginkgo co-founder, Austin Che.
That is the aim of this week’s announcement that Ginkgo is partnering with two startup accelerators — Y Combinator (YC) and Petri — to make its organism design platform easily available to their early-stage startups.
“We’ll work with both Y Combinator and Petri to identify startups in their cohorts next year that are a good fit to work with Ginkgo and we’ll program cells for them using our platform in exchange for equity,” says Che. Ginkgo will build cells for anything from advanced materials to food ingredients to cosmetics to therapeutics.
The challenges to scaling biology
“There is a high cost to boot up biology at scale,” Che told me, “whether it be for a small company or a company with a lot of resources. Not only money but also the time and attention span needed. A small company needs to bring a product to market as quickly as possible to survive and to bring in investment.”
Bringing a product to market involves various stages, including discovery, development, manufacturing, and commercialization. “Different stages have different scaling challenges,” Che explained, “and for any size company it is rarely economical to own all parts of the synbio stack.”
That’s where Ginkgo comes in. Its integrated platform for cell programming focuses on early stages that show economies of scale across projects. Later stages have unique scaling challenges of their own, depending on the product and its market. Che describes Ginkgo as a platform, one that is agnostic to those later-stage commercialization challenges.
“We are not trying to own the end-to-end value,” he said. “We are enabling other companies to build value on top of Ginkgo.”
And because Ginkgo Bioworks was the first bio company YC ever funded back in the summer of 2014, it has first-hand experience of just how to help innovators who are in the exact spot Ginkgo was not too long ago.
“The startups that go through these incubators are likely to be much earlier stage than other companies we’ve worked with,” said Che. “They may consist only of the founders, an idea, and the seed funding provided by the incubator. If successful, it would demonstrate that Ginkgo can address the needs of companies of all sizes.”
A proven platform just gets better
Indeed, Ginkgo has met success deploying its platform in service of a diverse range of internal and external projects. These include Genomatica (chemicals), Synlogic (therapeutics), Joyn (agriculture), Motif (food ingredients), and Cronos (cannabinoids). Regardless of the success of these larger efforts, Che says that helping early-stage startups stands to improve Ginkgo’s expertise in tackling a broader range of projects, small and large.
“We definitely expect to learn from the unique challenges of working with these startups,” he said. “By initially partnering with incubators, we hope that some of the challenges generally faced by startups can be handled by other incubator resources. On the technical side, Ginkgo will learn how our platform can support the type and diversity of projects that startups typically need.”
Jared Freedman of YC reports that Ginkgo Bioworks will offer to program cells for companies at YC and Petri doing relevant synthetic biology projects on a $0 down basis. Instead of cash, Ginkgo will get equity ownership based on achieving technical milestones. Ginkgo will vet the projects for technical feasibility and IP conflicts, but it expects a broad range of projects will qualify. In essence, Ginkgo will be able to offer the equivalent of what would be a huge R&D investment for these companies.
“Ginkgo provides capabilities to partners that would not be effective for them to build out themselves,” Che told me. “By working across a broad set of partners, all partners get access to flexible capacity and shared learnings. We often see customers in similar areas and facilitate ways for them to work together and share the cost of developing their products.”
And just what applications are Che and the rest of the team at Ginkgo Bioworks most eager to work on?
“I’m excited to have companies bring us applications that we haven’t thought of,” Che said. “There are lots of smart and innovative people outside of Ginkgo and we’re looking forward to seeing what our platform can enable them to do.”
Jason Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks, and Christina Agapakis, Creative Director, will be speaking at SynBioBeta 2019, October 1-3, San Francisco.