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Jason Kelly
CEO
Ginkgo Bioworks

12 January 2023

How did Ginkgo Bioworks come to be, and what is your current footprint? 

Ginkgo Bioworks is headquartered in Boston, employs around 1200 people and recently went public on the NYSE. The idea that prompted our conception is that DNA is a digital code, made up of letters that you can read through sequencing (like genomics), and write it with DNA synthesis or printing. The printed code is then built in our labs and can be inserted in the genome of a cell, to program it to act a certain way. 

 

The life science industry is the first one to make use of genetic engineering and DNA design - the first product resulted from programmed cells was actually insulin, which was done by moving human genes into bacteria.

 

But its uses expand across many other fields. At Ginkgo, we are trying to democratize the access to designing biology and bring the costs down, so it becomes more accessible and easier for companies to develop new therapies.

When it comes to your customer base, are you targeting larger companies or small and mid-sized biotechs? 

Despite the fact that we serve large corporations with substantial R&D budgets, small businesses and startups account for roughly 40% of the work on our platform. These businesses can avoid having to construct their own laboratories by outsourcing to us, saving them a ton of money on startup costs.

We work on a lot of different types of projects and the benefits extend beyond cost-saving, to efficacy. Particularly for big pharma companies, the scale at which we can undertake genetic design is significant and can occasionally make the seemingly impossible achievable.

R&D costs in life sciences tend to be higher than in most other industries. How do you fund your efforts? 

We raised USD 1.6 billion when we listed the company on the stock market in October, so we are well capitalized. Because we are aware of how expensive it is to develop a medicine from conception to market, we devote the majority of our resources to building our R&D infrastructure, so that our clients don’t have to. We are likely functioning at a larger scale than any other single player because we are combining over 100 R&D initiatives into one location, which makes us able to invest significantly more than even a large developer.  Although you probably would not expect it from a bio-engineering company, we have sizable teams of software developers, robots and automation programmers, it is truly a new approach to life sciences.

The pharmaceutical sector is seen as fairly conservative, and highly regulated. How do you evaluate the general appetite for making use of modern technologies like AI, for instance?

Our customers are hungry for cutting-edge scientific methods and emerging technology. They can see the rapid improvements caused by artificial intelligence and machine learning in certain areas and they are eager to get similar results in drug and therapy design. Particularly in therapeutics, new technology is always embraced. The regulators are usually slower - though still doing a good job in keeping up with the changes in the industry - but the general public is eager to integrate these new ways of doing things.

You recently signed a MoU with the Ministry of Investments in Saudi Arabia. Can you tell us more about this, and more broadly about your international ambitions?

During the pandemic, we started making progress in bio-security. The underlying idea is to detect impending threats and act before it is too late. This needs to be part of a global defense system both for public health reasons and for national security reasons. We are building these monitoring stations in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and a few other geographies. 

For instance, the leading program we have here in the US with the CDC involves monitoring incoming international flights (for now, only from 6 airports), collecting waste water and swabs from volunteering passengers, and if results are positive, through DNA sequencing, we look for new variants (of Covid-19 or other diseases). This is how we caught the first cases of BA2, BA3, Omicron in the US, 40 days before they showed up in a hospital sequencing. 

Are there other ways that the pandemic changed the life sciences industry? 

Operation "warp speed" showed how quickly you can develop a critical therapeutic if you put your mind to it. We should study this model and understand what parts of that could be replicated with other types of drugs. Moreover, there was a major expansion in bio-tech infrastructure and capabilities at a global level. Everyone wants to be in charge of their own manufacturing, because they are worried about supply chains.

What do you hope to accomplish at Ginkgo Bioworks in the near future?

Our business model relies on companies using our infrastructure, rather than doing it inhouse, to achieve better results at a larger scale. We now have less than 1% market penetration, so we are just beginning to scratch the surface. We have our work cut out of us, firstly convincing companies to outsource. Afterwards, comes the truly exciting part. As we scale up, new markets will open up for bio-technology, because it will start to get democratized and more cost-effective. This will also enable new and more efficient therapeutics. Our only limitation is our ability to design biology. 

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