Why innovate with biology? Because you can’t eat software

I’m happy to share we’ve been named to the CNBC Disruptor 50 list for the third year in a row. During these three years, Ginkgo has grown a lot, into new foundries and new industries. We’re now a team of almost 200 people and 65 robots and counting, still dreaming about how biology will change how we make things.

Crafting organisms | Illustration by George Kavallines for CNBC
image: George Kavallines for CNBC

Today, it’s a given that Silicon Valley and software are disrupting traditional ways of doing business, across media, financial services, logistics, transportation, healthcare, and many other things that once seemed to be far removed from computers and information technology. In 2011, Marc Andreessen aptly proclaimed that “software is eating the world”— in other words, that more sectors would be disrupted by and start to look like software companies.

A biotechnology company among a list of such disruptive companies could perhaps look like a software company, signaling just another sector eaten by software. But I think that would miss the point of innovating with biology.

In short, you can’t eat software.

Bits aren’t calories. A mobile app might help me decide what to eat for dinner and software will handle the logistics of how it gets to my door, but software doesn’t fill my stomach. I can’t taste software or smell it. I need more than just software to keep the lights on; I can’t wear it to keep warm. Software will help us discover important patterns in healthcare and medicine, but I can’t take a software pill to get well. Software can have many positive effects, but as Bill Gates has said about technology needs in the developing world: “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”

Designing DNA makes it possible to fundamentally disrupt the many unsustainable ways we make things today, to improve how we produce food, design medicines, and manufacture materials and chemicals. Learning from the wisdom of three billion years of biological evolution, we can tap into the ways living things grow, heal, and adapt in deeply circular and interconnected ways to make technology that is rooted in nature. From meat to medicines, vitamins, flavors, and everyday household products, biology companies are rethinking our manufacturing system and transforming cells into living factories to grow the products that will help meet growing global demand.

Even two industries that are fundamentally about biology—pharma and agriculture—are being biologically transformed by new ways of engineering cells. In 2016, 25% of pharma sales were from biologics like proteins and antibodies that are produced through genetic engineering. Today, we are seeing the beginning of a new generation of living therapeutics and engineered cell therapies, like those we are developing with Synlogic. In ag, new innovation is targeting the chemical inputs necessary for large-scale farming, replacing them with more sustainable biologic products. Just last year we founded Joyn Bio, our joint venture with Bayer to develop probiotics that could decrease the amount of chemical fertilizer – a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – needed in agriculture.

Fermentation engineer Kar Mun Neoh works in Bioworks2

But because we are biology, the stakes for disruption are also much higher for biotechnology. The power of biology is what inspires us and drives us to build this industry, but it’s also something we have great respect for and must approach with humility. Evolution has 3 billion years on us, and we don’t take that lightly.

With respect for biology at its core, the disruption that biotechnology offers is one that is going to enable more sustainable manufacturing, less fossil fuel intensive agriculture, smarter medicines, and so much more. We’re so excited to be part of that.

See the full CNBC Disruptor list here and read more about Ginkgo and our approach to synthetic biology on CNBC here: “Why Bill Gates is betting on a start-up that prints synthetic DNA”

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