Jason Kelly
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Learning from Nature to Develop new Organisms that Replace Technology with Biology

This week we interviewed Jason Kelly, CEO and Co-Founder of Ginkgo Bioworks, who will be giving a keynote talk at SynBioBeta SF 2017 on October 3rd. Ginkgo recently announced the creation of a new company with Bayer, with a $100M Series A financing round. It will focus on technologies to improve plant-associated microbes with a major focus on nitrogen fixation.

Why is organism engineering such an exciting field to be part of at the moment?

The sheer volume and breadth of industries that organism design can touch is amazing. We’ve reached some big milestones with our partners in flavors and fragrances this year, but our most recent deal with Bayer highlights how organism engineering and synthetic biology can have a meaningful impact on the multi-billion dollar agriculture industry.

As synthetic biology technology continues to mature and the cost to read/write DNA continues to drop, we will see other major markets – think electronics, fuels, medicine – looking to biology as a way to better create their products. Using biology, as opposed to traditional manufacturing and chemical engineering offers a number of benefits, including but not limited to sustainability, productivity and cost-effectiveness.

Can you tell us about your projects at Ginkgo Bioworks, and where do you see the biggest opportunities for custom microbe use in the US?

With Ginkgo’s platform model for organism design, we can consider just about every market and industry, looking at the ways biology can improve how products are manufactured. Some promising areas that I see custom organism design playing a role in – and that we are already starting to tackle with our partners – are flavors, fragrances and agriculture.

Earlier this month, we partnered with Bayer to create a new company to improve plant-associated microbes, focusing on nitrogen fixation. Our technology for organism design, paired with Bayer’s expertise in agriculture will allow us to design seeds that can eventually self-fulfill their nitrogen need, lessening dependence on traditional nitrogen fertilizer and the resulting runoff. This partnership is poised to drastically change the agriculture industry, as nitrogen fertilizer is widely-known for being a major contributor to water pollution and was cited as releasing 3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. This project isn’t just about manufacturing products more efficiently, it’s also about rethinking the ways we can address sustainability, and is a big indicator of the potential of synthetic biology to solve even bigger problems in the future.

What do you think are the United States’ greatest strengths as a life sciences industry, and what does the US need to do better?

I think the US has a fantastic nucleus of activity between startups across the ecosystem, academic labs, government agencies that are aware of the potential for biology, and a network of influencers who have spent the last few years in the trenches together. This new ecosystem is standing on the foundation built by an earlier generation that literally invented the field of biotechnology.

Additionally, I think the US based VCs and capital markets are starting to understand the non-pharma areas of life science space and developing mental models that feel accurate and testable. The pessimism following when biofuels failed to meet industry expectations seems to have subsided, making room for companies of all sizes and industries to realize the potential of innovating with biology.

Where we could do better is articulating and going after projects that were previously considered moonshots and are now feasible with biotech’s current capabilities. Beyond moonshot projects, we need to be addressing priority areas like biosecurity or pandemic response with more urgency. Furthermore, these efforts tend to foster dynamic and unexpected collaboration, which is is key. These complex challenges demand unexpected partners to come together with their unique areas of expertise to tackle these questions.

What challenges persist in custom organism design, and what progress has your team – or other peers – made in overcoming them?

The main challenge we face in organism design is the time it takes to reach a final product and scale. At Ginkgo, our mission has always been to make biology easier to engineer, and part of that is making biology scalable – and our foundries are the trick to enabling us to do so. For context, in my five years at MIT, I printed around 50,000 letters of DNA, but in just a month, Ginkgo will print 35M letters of DNA.

With our automated foundries, we’re able to dramatically decrease the time it takes to test thousands of iterations of customly designed organisms. As we speed this process, we’ll be able to make synthetic biology more accessible for all industries.

What are the upcoming milestones and long-term priorities for your company?

Our priority continues to be bringing our platform for organism design to disrupt new industries from agriculture to consumer electronics and expanding awareness for biology as the most powerful technology, and a better way to manufacture things. In the more immediate future, we’re looking forward to opening Bioworks3 this winter, our third automated foundry that will help support the new company we’re founding with Bayer.

There are also a number of new partnerships in markets where engineered biology is being applied for the first time. We’re making traction with brands, retailers and product designers who are tapping into the biology megatrend, and actively seeking applications to bring into their business.

What are you most looking forward to at SynBioBeta SF 2017?

I’m looking forward to interacting with the product-based biotech companies to learn more about their process and how they’re leveraging biology in their unique applications. The next wave of success we hope to be part of will be about delivering biology-inspired products to consumers. We’re actively thinking about offering our foundry services to both large and small companies across industries and hope to play a role in de-risking the technical path so founders can focus on product and business model design. If you’re interested in discussing any of these topics further, be sure to connect with me and my team at the show.

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Marianna Limas

Marianna Limas

Marianna plays a critical role in displaying and communicating SynBioBeta’s message to the world. She manages SynBioBeta’s social media channels and newsletter, and works with the editorial, website, research and marketing teams.

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