What You Need to Know About Zymergen
December 2, 2015
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff
Zymergen develops genetically engineered microbes that are used for industrial fermentation. The company’s approach merges automation and bioinformatics, which has been described as a combination of Darwinian selection of genetically engineered microbes combined with machine learning, analysis and automation.
Zymergen believes that by automating every step of the process, the company is able to design and create new microbial strains at dramatically improved scale and speed.
The company typically works with its business partners by modifying current production strains in order to cuts costs and avoid additional capital infrastructure.
Zymergen also describes itself as “host agnostic,” meaning it doesn’t limit itself to the traditional microbial engineering species of bacteria, S. cerevisiae and E. coli. The company has worked with fungi, as well as both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria.
In addition to the company’s automation, it has integrated “big data” analysis into its processes, which allows it more agility in dealing to information as it comes in.
“What Zymergen is doing is not unique, but very important,” IndieBio partner Ryan Bethencourt told TechCrunch. “It’s the combination of Darwinian selection of genetically engineered microbes, plus machine learning, analysis and automation that is unique. Zymergen has the potential to become the Google of strain optimization.”
Joshua Hoffman—chief executive officer. Prior to Zymergen, Hoffman was a partner at Norcob Capital, and before that, he was a managing director of merchant banking at Rothschild, where he was also a member of the management committee.
Jed Dean—vice president of operations and engineering. Before joining Zymergen, Dean developed technology and automation at Amyris and at the Stanford Genome Technology Center.
Aaron Kimball—chief technology officer. He is responsible for building the data architecture the company uses to facilitate a robotics-driven approach to genome engineering. Before Zymergen, Kimball worked at several big data-oriented startups, including Cloudera. In 2010, he co-founded WibiData.
Zach Serber—chief scientific officer and vice president of development. Before joining Zymergen, he was director of biology at Amyris and principal investigator on a Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract to develop advanced tools for synthetic biology.
Enakshi Singh—vice president of finance. Prior to joining Zymergen, Singh was with Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, where she focused on semiconductor investments. Before that she worked in investment banking at Salomon Smith Barney’s Latin America Group and Merrill Lynch’s Technology Investment Banking Group.
Zymergen raised $2 million in seed funding in 2013. In 2015, it raised $44 million in Series A funding led by Data Collective, and was joined by AME Cloud Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, HVF, Innovation Endeavors, Obvious Ventures, True Ventures and Two Sigma Ventures.
Zymergen isn’t a biotech company working on developing new drugs the way biotech is usually defined. It uses a blend of automation and data management algorithms as a platform to help its customers improve their industrial fermentation processes. As a June 16, 2015 Forbes article noted, “Within six months, a Zymergen customer typically has their improved microbes to use in production on their own site. Like their spiritual predecessor in the work at Amyris, the process is renewable, not like the petroleum-based processes popular today.”
Currently, the company is working with a number of big companies, although its investors have noted that long-term Zymergen might “take the lead on a range from new food types to adhesives that can get wet and thus be used in all manner of applications in the medical field.”
“We aren’t selling technology,” Hoffman told Forbes. “We’re selling better economics. If we don’t do that, we don’t get paid. That’s an easy sell.”
In terms of automation startups in the life sciences arena, competitors include Transcriptic that focuses on drug testing, Bolt Threads, which makes spider silk from bacteria, and Ginkgo BioWorks, a company that engineers yeast DNA to make fragrances.
One of Zymergen’s biggest competitors, oddly enough, is oil prices. Many of the fermentation products they are competing with are petroleum-based, and with oil prices low, Zymergen’s customers need convincing that their engineered fermenting processes are cheaper.
Another competitor is Synthace, a UK-based bioengineering firm that mixes high- throughput processing with software to develop the bioprocesses necessary to make bio-based chemicals.
What to Look For
The company has stayed quiet about its clients, although it is already bringing in revenue. Jenny Rooke of 5 Prime Ventures, told Synbiobeta, “In only a year, Zymergen’s top tier founding team has proven out all of the key elements of the original business strategy, exceeding the very high expectations I had for the company at the time of the seed round (April 2014). Zymergen has a pole position in applying synthetic biology to the $3 trillion chemicals industry, and I’m thrilled to participate in their Series A.”
Check out the full list of the top 20 life science startups: NextGen Bio "Class of 2016."
View the top 30 life science startups in 2015: NextGen Bio "Class of 2015."