Fewer Wizards, Bigger Castles: As Zymergen acquires EnEvolv, the tension builds between Open Innovation and closed circles of high-end design and optimization

March 24, 2020 |

From San Francisco and Boston — peeking out from their shelters in place — news arrived Zymergen has acquired EnEvolv at the customary price of “terms were not disclosed”.

There are a couple of streams to note here, within this storyline.

The technical storyline.

As the always quotable Kiwi Collin South puts it:

“This partnership crystalizes our long-held belief that the combination of high throughput genome engineering, powerful technology and new approaches to material science will push the biological manufacturing revolution into the mainstream,” says Colin South, CEO of enEvolv.

“Zymergen is the technology leader in this domain and their high standards for research, coupled with their commitment to creating novel materials from biological sources, is truly unmatched in the industry. They are the only full stack product company that has invested in material science and chemistry capabilities in addition to manufacturing-scale genetic engineering, and we are truly excited to be joining their team and taking our work to the next level, together.”

The foreign shores storyline.

The West Coast / East Coast divide in synthetic biology has never been as nasty or colorful as the divide that once marked the world of Hip Hop, but it’s been there. Mostly, Silicon Valley and Boston staring each other down, with San Diego, Seattle and the Research Triangle and some other locales occasionally playing a starring role.

The lines have been blurred of late, with Genomatica closely allied with Ginkgo and now EnEvolv becoming absorbed in the Zymergen cluster, making the lines blurred even more.

In some ways, think of this acquisition as Omaha Beach for the Zymergites as they fling themselves onto the East Coast shores in search of clients, partners, assignments, and presumably a few investors.

As Zymergen’s pharaohs explain, “Already a global organization with offices across North America and Asia, this acquisition adds a Boston-area location to the Zymergen footprint, improving collaboration with East Coast partners and greatly enhancing Zymergen’s ability to attract talent from the rich science, technology and academic communities around New England.”

The fusion story.

If you fused Jay Keasling and George Church together, genetically, I have sometimes wondered what creature of wonder would emerge. A rapidly spinning (hence spin-outs) superintelligent, unicellular life form throwing off companies like solar wind from a massive red supergiant, presumably parked next to a gigantic interstellar cloud formed of glucose, and capable of fermenting sugars directly in one step into patent applications and journal articles.

Short of an actual fusion in the tradition of The Fly, this merger (enEvolv co-founded by Church) and Zymergen (co-founded by a group that once essentially were Amyris’ strain engineering team (Amyris co-founded by Keasling), and which have remained close to the center of the Amyris universe in Emeryville where Zymergen has periodically vacuumed up office space faster than a massive black hole) is the closest thing we’ve had on offer since the founding of the old LS9, which now finds itself somewhere in the general vicinity of Planet Ginkgo.

Adsorption or absorption?

As part of the acquisition, the enEvolv organization will join Zymergen, including founder and COO Jay Konieczka and CEO Colin South.

Will they be absorbed (into the whole) or adsorbed (attached to the surface to accelerate the commercial prospects) — we suspect the latter. Though one never knows exactly how long Collin South will stay at one enterprise, he’s been a hopper and a fixer, lo these many years.

The EnEvolv backstory

The company emerged from stealth some six years ago with a $1.7 million Series A raise. The foundation technology, Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering, dates back a few years earlier and arose from the Church lab in the late 2000s. You can read about it during those early days, here.

Worth noting some of the worthies in that early effort. There’s Church, Zachary Sun (now CEO of Tierra Biosciences), Farren Isaacs (now at Yale and associated with the CRSIPR alternative eukaryotic multiplex genome engineering or eMAGE), Harris Wang now running a distinguished lab at Columbia).

EnEvolv engineers and licenses microorganisms to produce chemicals, enzymes, and small molecules for pharmaceuticals, personal care, specialty chemicals, food, and energy industries. EnEvolv collaborates with major companies to engineer novel microorganisms and improve their existing strains to increase production yield and product quality.

The company’s proprietary genome engineering platform is built on, developed by the company’s co-founders, Drs. George Church of Harvard Medical School and Farren Isaacs of Yale University. By treating the genome of living cells as the template for editing and evolution, EnEvolv offers substantial advantage in speed, cost, and cellular engineering capabilities.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“Merging enEvolv’s powerful technology to search ultra-large genomic libraries with Zymergen’s proven capabilities in engineering, automation and machine learning greatly enhances our ability to discover, design and commercialize biologically-manufactured materials across a wide spectrum of industries – starting with electronics, consumer care and agriculture,” says Zymergen CEO Joshua Hoffman. “This acquisition speeds our delivery of high performance and sustainable products to customers and further cements our leadership position in the bio-manufacturing space.”

“As a researcher and entrepreneur myself, I am all too familiar with the roadblocks many in the community face when trying to take powerful new discoveries to market in a cost effective and scalable way,” says George Church, Professor of Genetics and Director of the Center for Computational Genetics at Harvard Medical School, and co-founder of enEvolv. “The Zymergen team has cracked the code and built a strong business that merges the best of biological and chemical research practices with lab automation and powerful machine learning capabilities to create revolutionary new materials that are both economically robust and ecologically sound. The combined talent and capacity of enEvolv and Zymergen will further accelerate the transformation in product and material manufacturing.”

The Bottom Line

There’s a see-saw in digital biology at the moment.

On the one hand, there’s consolidation — the building out of companies with monolithic capability from strain engineering to optimization and manufacturing.

On the other hand, there’s a new freedom of association between companies specializing in one area or another.

In the old days, the first path was the only one possible. Lately, the cloud, distance communication and the fast-changing landscape of opportunity has favored the latter model. It’s not entirely clear that biology benefits from the first model but companies seem to gravitate towards it, for reasons of economies of scale, conversation of cash, and acceleration from bench to behemoth. We continue to measure the progress of both models.

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