Last Train to Emeryville: The DigiBio value engine is leavin’ the station, are you on it?

January 9, 2018 |

Tie-ins for Zymergen, Radiant Genomics, DMC, Capricorn Venture Partners, Syngenta and CHS demonstrate the firepower and scope of digital biology.

Today, products made via traditional biological tools tap into easy-to-grow-in-a-lab organisms, and mostly nothin’ else. Sort of like making all the wines in the world from Merlot grapes, because the underlying manufacturing is just too easy with Merlot and too hard with anything else. Consider this the Sideways problem.

And some winsome Zymergenites mentioned to me that that less than one percent of natural diversity has been easily accessible to scientists, and yet even this small percentage has provided billions of dollars of value. Or as DMC CEO Matt Lipscomb puts it, “everyone acknowledges that biology is inherently complex, and up until now, that complexity has meant long and costly development cycles.”

What’s coming — or rather, what’s leaving the station? Unprecedented speed and cost reductions in bringing biological change to market, that’s what.

The Last Train to Emeryville

A revolution that is taking place in Boston, San Diego, Minneapolis, Ames, Seattle, and Denver and elsewhere — but whose heart is in Emeryville. the spiritual home of the overpriced 1-bedroom apartment and sandals worn out of season. And, where you can open almost any door in town and watch a dozen start-ups tumble into the street in digital biology’s answer to the stateroom scene in Night at the Opera. 

What’s up? Call it, digital biology. That’s our catch-all term for the convergence of artisanal biology with the modern tools provide by the digital revolution — accelerating and altering the pace and scope of advanced biotechnology.  Think of of it this way: turning biology into a branch of information science.

Zymergen grabs Radiant Genomics

One of the signs that the earliest stage of a revolution is ending is when the resultant companies start to acquire one another. We’ve seen a bunch of that — Ginkgo BioWorks and Gen9 come to mind. Moreso, now that digbio behemoth Zymergen, which integrates machine learning and manufacturing technologies to engineer biology, acquired Radiant Genomics and its more than two terabases of physical and digital DNA data, one of the largest fully-assembled and instantly-accessible catalogues of genetic diversity in the world.

What RG has

Besides the terabases of data? RG developed a robust industrial platform via which scientists could rapidly identify, produce, and test products encoded in the genomes of millions of organisms not easily grown in the lab, circumventing cultivation barriers. That’s candy for Zymergen’s rapid appetite for the frothy sugars of convergence.

Then and now. From artisanal alchemy to DigiBio. Right: Zymergen. Left: we think it dates to and represents the state of the art circa 2002, and the auteur could be George Church.

As Zymergen CEO Josh Hoffman put it, “Radiant Genomics was launched with the same vision that drove us to start Zymergen – that the next great wave of innovation will come from biology. The molecules biology produces on its own could provide solutions to some of the toughest challenges across industries. Radiant has built an unparalleled platform and set of libraries to search genetic diversity that will allow us to search for these molecules of interest, extending our ability to produce useful molecules for materials that can transform the world around us.”

Radiant Genomics’ entire team including founders Jeffrey Kim and Oliver Liu, will join Zymergen. More on the story at Planet Zymergen, here.

Over to Denver and DMC’s first cap raise

Though Emeryville is Ground Zero, you don’t have to smoke weed to feel that change has come to Colorado, too — and in the Denver area, DMC has raised a first equity financing led by Capricorn Venture Partners. It seemed about 7 minutes ago that we heard Capricorn moved into the investment phase, and now they’ve deployed capital into DMC.

This funding builds on the company’s successful non-dilutive awards to date which exceed $1.2M from the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Energy, and the US Department of Agriculture.

Why the excitement? DMC makes bio-based products using enhanced microbial fermentation. Modification of the programming language for microbes to enhance productivity has historically been complicated, slow, and costly. DMC has developed technology to reduce biological complexity and enhance the speed of development, creating a low cost, fermentation-based manufacturing platform that has the capability to produce a broad diversity of products. (If you feel there’s a connection to the old OPX Bio and its Efficiency Directed Genome Engineering technology, you’re not all that far off base, though OPX Bio’s tech has disappeared down into the deep caverns of Cargill).

With this funding, DMC plans to recruit top talent in metabolic engineering and fermentation and advance its first products to pilot scale. The company also announced the addition to its Board of Directors of Rob van der Meij, Investment Manager of the Capricorn Sustainable Chemistry Fund. More about DMC here.

Even in Frostbite Falls, Syngenta is advancing the revolution

For a number of years in Minnesota, rumors of extraordinary advances in genetics have been appearing; for example, consistent reports of squirrels being pulled out of hats instead of rabbits.

One practical application of the digital biology revolution took a step forward this week in frigid Minnesota with news that CHS agreed on terms with Syngenta to deploy Enogen corn enzyme technology at its 130-million-gallon ethanol plant in Rochelle, Illinois. CHS is a premier ethanol producer, marketer and trader and one of the nation’s largest suppliers of ethanol-enhanced gasoline.

Enogen corn enzyme technology is an in-seed innovation available exclusively from Syngenta and features the first biotech corn output trait designed specifically to enhance ethanol production. Using digital biology to deliver best-in-class alpha amylase enzyme directly in the grain, Enogen corn eliminates the need to add liquid alpha amylase and can help an ethanol plant significantly reduce the viscosity of its corn mash, improving plant performance. And, numerous trials have shown that Enogen hybrids perform equal to or better than other high-performing corn hybrids.

Several million dollars in premiums are expected to be paid annually to growers raising Enogen corn, locally, for the CHS plant in Rochelle. The Rochelle plant is an 81-acre, dry mill corn-based operation and was acquired by CHS in June 2014. More on that one, here.

The Bottom Line

In Emeryville, if you’re not practicing digital biology, you’re thinking about it, explaining it investing in it, or making gobs of money selling lattes or services to someone in the field.

Digital biology is the only known fundamental force in the universe that keeps all mathematical knowledge from tumbling into the black holes of Apple, Google and their ilk. And we might add, this cadre of scientists — some of them screamingly young — are using their science chops for something more ambitious than getting you a faster, cheaper taxi. They are changing the materials, therapies and organisms of the future.

So, get yourself to Emeryville and check it out. In fact, take the last train to Emeryville, the next wave of value creation is about to leave the station.

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