Ginkgo Bioworks

For making genetic code as easy to customize as computer code.

Jason Kelly, Reshma Shetty, Barry Canton, Austin Che, Tom Knight
$154 million
 Photo Credit: Courtesy Company

Why It's Disruptive

Ginkgo Bioworks describes itself as an "organism design firm." The company creates custom microbes for companies to use in perfumes, sweeteners, and cosmetics. So instead of, say, plucking a rose and extracting its oil to create a rose-scented perfume, a biologist in a lab can recreate the genomic sequence that's responsible for creating a rose scent and insert it into brewer's yeast. Ginkgo Bioworks can then give that genetically modified yeast to a fragrance company, which it can brew itself to create rose oil. Ginkgo's mission is to make genetic code as easy to program as computer code, which would in turn pave the way for increasingly varied uses of bioengineered products.

The team spent the first five years of the company's life building out what co-founder and CEO Jason Kelly describes as a "giant compiler, debugger, and programming language for genetic code." Today, the company has a nearly 50,000-square-foot-facility in Boston, where robots perform the DNA mixing that used to be done by hand. That both lowers the cost of production and frees up biologists to spend their time writing and designing new DNA strands. It also means that Ginkgo can synthesize millions of DNA base pairs in the time it used to take scientists to synthesize thousands. The company is now looking beyond the consumer ingredients space to new markets, such as electronics and pharmaceuticals. Current clients include Cargill and Darpa.

"Fifty percent of your drugs are biotech," he says. "If you're in the fragrance industry, textiles, building materials, electronics, you're going to need to care about biotechnology."

Biggest Challenges

Before Ginkgo can change how consumer products are produced, it's going to have to convince skeptics that bioengineered products are safe to use. Kelly wrote an op-ed in The New York Times last year arguing for the labeling of genetically modified organisms, so that consumers can better understanding the benefits of genetically engineering a product or plant to give it certain qualities. --Anna Hensel