Super clear, super thin, super durable: Zymergen bends it like Beckham, electronics-wise 

April 6, 2020 |

Move over, Impossible Whopper. Zymergen has made an impossible material, and something almost as rare in the biobased world, you can actually order it the day you first hear about it. Yep, Zymergen’s running the best play that you’d ever find in the Steve Jobs playbook, the “it’s insanely great, and call now to order” one.

It’s called Hyaline, which qualifies as the shortest word coined using “aline’ as a suffix that you can get a trademark on, that come along in (I think) two generations. Rolls off the tongue just a little faster than, say, sulfaquinoxaline.

It’s incredibly thin film for electronics applications, and is already being used in flexible circuits, display touch sensors and printable electronics. It’s the first product out from Zymergen and Sumitomo, who have been working so deep in stealth mode that unless you own a personal bathyscaphe for pleasure cruising in the Mariana Trench,  you probably haven’t heard much about it.

In the pursuit of new materials through biology, we’re going to put this in the One Giant Leap for Mankind box instead of on our “One Small Step For a Man” shelf.

Here’s why. Yep, it’s sustainable, yep it addresses supply chain issues relating to ESG goals, yep it’s a very advanced fermentation-based technology informed by masses of machine learning. But that’s mostly beside the point, and that’s what especially cool.

Here we get to talk about a product instead of a process. Sometimes you just want to experience Budweiser as a beer or the Impossible Whopper as a burger instead of as an advanced technology story.

Folding phones that really work are just one application of this technology.

You can’t drink it or chew it,, but you this is at-scale, at parity cost, and you can Bend it like Beckham. You can expect to see:

  • Touch Sensors: Zymergen tips an “unrivaled combination of mechanical, physical and optical properties that enables durable full-screen touch sensors in flexible/foldable devices and allows for higher ITO annealing temperatures in manufacturing, increasing capacity.”
  • Optical Filters: thinner film with high temperature properties to enable faster processing times in manufacturing. And if you look at the spec sheet, it’s as thin as Twiggy.
  • Printed Electronics: completely transparent, high temperature printed electronics – including Flexible Printed Circuit Boards (PCB) – that eliminate epoxy/ acrylic adhesive layers to create an optimized system that is 30% thinner and more flexible, as well as solderable using standard reflow soldering

The Flex Circuits backstory

It’s a big market, as the potential uses demonstrate. And, flex circuits are not exactly new, in fact they are older than you are, unless you are over 65. 

But to say that flex circuits have sort of sputtered along of late, and have become a relatively low-growth, static field would be a fair criticism. It’s a little like the Sun, up there above you in the sky. It’s huge, important, and the technology hasn”t changed since the Big Bang.

But it’s not the fault of products like Kapton. Just like it is not the fault of the Europeans that they usually win the Ryder Cup. No one has revolutionized the field with a breakthrough, so it has felt to me like a market forecast that reads, $15 billion in 2020, $15.00000000000000000001 billion in 2021, $15.00000000000000000002 billion in 2022, and so forth. Low-growth, declining margins. Product managers able to take long siestas under shady trees. You get the idea.

So, change arriveth.

I thought Zymergen was going for optimization — this is a whole new functionality, what happened?

I heard that too. You didn’t hear it from Zymergen, as much as you heard it from everyone else. Which has been a bit of the Zymergite problem, everyone else has been doing the talking.

To clarify what’s going on and put it in perspective, let’s briefly look back on the Zymergen story, and also look towards the the next chapter. To help us, we called on Zymergen co-founder and CEO Josh Hoffman.

“It’s bit of an accidental reputation,” Hoffman said of the Zymergen does optimization label that the company acquired. 

“It reflected what made sense at the time. The problem for a lot of potential products that came along had been in scale-up, and optimization was something the industry needed, and we would need ourselves, to scale. But it was more than just optimization, always,.  We think that biology opens the world, we wanted to bring impossible materials to market, and we thought we could build a technology that no one else has, and it may feel like we have been off in the wilderness, but we wanted to talk about what we have done, and say it when you could place an order, as opposed to “at some point…”

“We wanted to make products, and be known for products, that are reliable, effective and cheap. And I just have this strong aversion to the kind of line where you say, ‘imagine…growing a cell phone from a cell,’ which just feels like a crock of s*** to me.”

“We ship product,” Hoffman said, “we make this film, you can order this great product, and it’s incredibly more thin, coupled with the opacity and the cost parity. And it has the production quality so you can put into a major company’s supply chain.”

I’m not sure in these COVID-19 days how fast the production might ramp up, but you can definitely place an order, and by the way, Zymergen has a much snappier website these days, at zymergen.com.

So, that’s now. What’s next —iterations off this platform, or, now for something completely different?

“We’re not making intermediates, we are making final products,” Hoffman told The Digest. “So, it’s a very simple test, does the product create value for the end consumer, and is it materially better? Turns out, if you have that, then generally speaking there are large markets and good margins. This is not a 100 million dollar market. This is an adult market.”

And, more adult markets to come, so to speak. Think one more materials launch this year, two more in 2021, and three more in 2022. The Zymergen launch pad may be busier than NASA’s.

What about the Sumitomo partnership — how broad, how exclusive?

Turns out, Zymergen has many independent ways to go. “The partnership has a finite number of products that explicitly focus on electronics. We are not constrained in selling product outside the construct of the partnership, it doesn’t create burdensome limitations.”

Hoffman pauses to praise Sumitomo.

“Really, we co-developed with them, with their manufacturing and customer insight, we were able to move from first idea to market in three years.”

What next? Don’t expect anything that looks uniquely medical or relating to cars or jets, for now.

“We look for opportunities where you can adopt new materials rapidly,” Hoffman tipped. “It can be a 10-15 year journey with cars, and planes even more in terms of the next generation.  There are lots of ideas to pursue. We have one partner with whom we have had one conversation and already there are 40 ideas to pursue. There are a lot of market needs. We have two more things that we are going to launch that are arguably more exciting, and 15 more in the pipeline. It’s a huge backlog of amazing things, so it will be more like 3-9 months to see what we have next.”

Answers for your technology questions!

1. Are all of the monomers used to make Hyaline bio-based? Or are some of the monomers still produced via hydrocarbons?

The critical monomers that allow the polymer to have differentiated properties are currently or will be bio based within the year. Biology allows us to use complex molecular structures at industrial cost that are critical to the differentiated performance.

We are using some petrochemical based monomers for an intermediate period to allow fast market introduction as we are seeing a very strong pull from customers asking for these products.

2. Are the bio-based monomers produced by fermentation or by some other method?

Fermentation

3. Are the Hyaline polyimide films simply renewable versions of polyimides produced via hydrocarbons? Or are these novel polyimides that have not been manufactured before on a commercial scale?

Completely new polymers not manufactured before on commercial scale (or at any scale).

4. Can you disclose who is manufacturing the biobased monomers and who is producing the polyimide films?

We have a range of partners (CMOs) that we use in Europe, USA and Asia but cannot disclose more detail at this time. One point to note is that we are able to leverage our development partner’s (Sumitomo Chemical) network of partners and companies.

How did Zymergen do it so fast?

After all, 10 years used to be the norm. What’s this with 3 years? Hoffman summed it up in a word.

“Culture.”

Not the kind you grow in a petri dish. A culture brings together chemists, biologists software and others to move at a pace that others would find challenging. Or it doesn’t. This work is a team sport, getting the right players and getting the right system is not for the faint of heart but it does pay off in advanced materials the same as it does for the New England Patriots.

Hoffman is a little more low-key about it. “It’s amazing how much you can get done when you are heads down making product, as opposed to talking about what could be done.”

Real Artists Ship 

It’s something that Steve Jobs used to say all the time, real artists ship. but the phrase hasn’t exactly been, um, set to music and adopted as a torch song by the biobased movement, which has been occasionally known for singing versions of the old John Lennon song “Imagine”:

“Imagine there’s no oil industry
it’s easy if you try
no hell to deal with
above us, only clean sky

“You may say that I’m a dreamer
but I’m not the only one
there’s also my investor set
and all the narratives we’ve spun.”

It’s been difficult for the Zymergites to talk about their venture as a technology story when they really wanted to tell a product story. So, we’ve we haven’t been able to fully understand a company of the first magnitude in this industry.

So, we had Zymergen, then Submergen, then Stealthmergen, and I was beginning to fear that we were entering the era of the SilenceThatNeverCeasesMergen — when, what do you know? 

The real artists shipped.

Excerpts from the specs

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