August 17, 2015      

Zymergen Inc. has raised $42 million in Series A funding to move from testing to manufacturing with its fermenting robots, which extend far beyond bread and beer. The biotechnology startup had previously raised $2 million at its founding in 2013.

Emeryville, Calif.-based Zymergen combines biochemistry and automation to create microbes and renewable materials for the healthcare, electronics, cleaning, and construction industries, among others. Currently, many synthetic materials are based on petroleum. The company says it uses “a data-driven approach to biology” that integrates biology, automation, and computation.

Zymergen uses designer microbes to produce plastics.

Zymergen uses automation to rapidly develop new materials.

That combination of robotics and the Helix custom-built software enables Zymergen to accelerate the development of engineered bacteria with more precise controls. It can test and analyze multiple iterations of microbes and materials and then produce them. Automation also reduces the chance of human error.

“A lot of lab automation is built with [testing] in mind. What we do that is unusual, and as far as we know, we’re the only people in the world to do it,” said Josh Hoffman, Zymergen CEO. “We use robots to assemble all the DNA, put it together, stick it across the cell membrane and into the bug itself, and then it integrates.”

Algorithms lead to new materials
Unlike some of its competitors, Zymergen is more of a data and machine-learning startup than biotech, said Obvious Ventures principal Nan Li to TechCrunch.

“It’s purely a data product,” Li said. “And with robotics, it can move forth evolution that can make this process better.”

Data Collective was the lead investor in Zymergen and was joined in this round by Obvious Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurveston, HVF, Innovation Endeavors, True Ventures, and Two Sigma Ventures.

Ginkgo Bioworks plans to double production with Bioworks2.

Ginkgo will scale up to Bioworks2 for testing and production.

Synthetics funding fuels rivalry
Zymergen has 52 employees and plans to scale up its operations. It also hopes to develop materials such as new food types and medical adhesives that can get wet and to sell some of its technology to manufacturers. The industrial chemicals market is worth $3 trillion, according to Fortune.

However, rival Ginkgo Bioworks has raised a total of $54 million for similar automation of synthetic biology, including its Bioworks2 machine. Its investors included Viking Global, OS Fund, Felicis Ventures, and Y Combinator.

Boston-based Ginkgo is working on products such as artificial sweeteners and probiotics for the U.S. military. It also plans to use the funding for staffing and automated production.

As with other emerging technologies, the National Institute for Standards and Technology wants to develop standards for synthetic biology.