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Synthetic Biology Startup Zymergen Emerges From Stealth With $44 Million

Zymergen uses robots and data to create new microbes for industrial applications.

Albert Law / Zymergen

Everybody uses microbes.

Companies like Dow Chemical use them to make new plastics, health care companies use them to develop new treatments and startup Zymergen, which is coming out of stealth today and announcing a $44 million funding round, has figured out a cost-effective way to manufacture them at scale.

Zymergen uses a combination of robots and proprietary software to build and test thousands of new strains of DNA at a time, accomplishing in a matter of days what the company says might ordinarily take postdoctoral researchers in a lab around a year. In a phone interview with Re/code, CEO Joshua Hoffman put it this way: “Most labs look like they did in the 19th century, barring clothing and gender diversity. The work is manual, slow and prone to errors.”

Aside from the all-too-familiar innovation of replacing humans with robots, the Zymergen pitch is that not only is the company cutting down on labor costs by automating experiments, its data-intensive, machine learning technology gets better over time, refining the process and working out the kinks. Hoffman, a former VC and McKinsey consultant, compared it to Google Maps: “They do computation, and we do microbes.”

Though Zymergen’s technology is complicated (on the phone, I repeatedly asked Hoffman to walk me through some of the underlying science), the overall business strategy is pretty standard. Like Amazon or Uber, it is simply ironing out inefficiencies in a given procedure and using the data it collects to improve its practices as it goes along. Unlike those firms, Hoffman said Zymergen is the only one of its kind offering the service that it does, which helps to explain why it was in stealth for so long and why it was able to raise unusually large early-stage funding.

The Series A round was led by Data Collective, with participation from Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, Ev Williams’ Obvious Ventures, True Ventures, Two Sigma Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Max Levchin’s HVF.

Hoffman says the two year-old company plans to use the money to go after new talent and to help scale the platform. As for what’s next, he said “an IPO is in the cards,” but first they have to get through spending all this new money.

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