The past few years have been boom times for synthetic biology. Today, in a big test for public markets’ appetite for the emerging field, Zymergen raised $500 million in an initial public offering set to value the company at more than $3 billion.
“I love the symbolism that we’re going public on Earth Day,” cofounder and CEO Josh Hoffman told Forbes in a morning video call. “There’s a bit of luck there, but I’m just super pleased. It is really cool.”
Hoffman, 50, a former McKinsey consultant and Rothschild merchant banker, founded Zymergen in 2013 with two former Amyris execs, Zach Serber, 46, now chief science officer, and Jed Dean, 43, now vp of of operations and engineering. They named it Zymergen as a mash-up of the words zymurgy (the study of fermentation), merge and genomics. Based in Emeryville, California, a hotspot for biology startups, the company’s scientists ferment molecules that can become part of industrial coatings, insect repellant or whatever final product the company is developing.
Zymergen is one of a number of companies that are using biology, along with machine learning and robotics, to transform how we manufacture stuff. And after years of flying under the radar, investors are taking notice. In addition to Zymergen’s IPO, Gingko Bioworks, which we profiled in Forbes magazine in 2019, is now reportedly considering a SPAC deal worth more than $20 billion.
“I love the symbolism that we’re going public on Earth Day.”
Zymergen’s first product is a transparent polymer film, called Hyaline, that it’s marketing for use in consumer electronics. It has 10 other products in development in electronics, personal care and agriculture. The potential market opportunity, by Zymergen’s calculations, is $1.2 trillion. “I’m not saying we’re ever going to sell $1.2 trillion, let’s not be absurd, but it’s ubiquitous across product classes,” Hoffman says. “We’re trying to make better stuff in a better way across the economy, and last I checked there was a lot of stuff to go make.”
But this is a long game: Though Zymergen had raised more than $1 billion from investors that include SoftBank, True Ventures and DCVC before its IPO, it’s just beginning to commercialize its first product. Revenue last year was a meager $13 million, “substantially all” of which came from R&D service contracts and collaboration agreements for developing, testing and validating its biomanufacturing platform, according to its prospectus. The company reported a net loss of $262 million for 2020, and has said that it does not expect to be profitable in the foreseeable future.
Hoffman, who has an undergraduate degree from the Unviersity of California, Berkeley, and a graduate degree from Yale, never intended to be an entrepreneur. He started his career at the Carter Center in Atlanta, then worked for the Uganda Ministry of Finance before winding up in banking. “Entrepreneur is not a label I apply to myself,” he says. “I would be a little uneasy if somebody called me that, but it probably fits.”
Hoffman had been doing some advisory work at Amyris, and when Serber left to start his own company the two started hanging out and talking about the potential. Today, their Emeryville labs are a high-tech space, where scientists wearing white lab coats with a stylized letter “Z” on them run experiments rapidly thanks to the company’s custom automation.
In a video tour of the labs last summer, Zymergen showed off how it had integrated systems to not only have colony-picking robots, but to design software that could put the pieces together in modular fashion. “Jed Dean and I traveled to China to visit car parts factories and Apple factories to learn how the work is done,” Will Serber, Zymergen’s head of automation, who has a master’s degree in astrophysics from Princeton, explained then.
Zymergen’s Hyaline product is a bio-based polymer film that is transparent and strong, yet bendable, making it good for use in foldable touchscreen phones, high-density flexible printed circuits, wearable sensors and other consumer electronics. The company launched it commercially in December 2020, and is currently doing qualifications with potential customers.
Most of the materials currently in use as optical films are petrochemical-based and decades old, giving Zymergen’s product an advantage in sustainability. But Zymergen’s pitch to customers is more than that. “If you show up at a phone company or an OEM and you’re like ‘biology can change your world,’ they’re like, ‘that’s cool, but I don’t know what to do with it.’ But if you show up with an optical film, that’s a different story,” Hoffman says. “We’re not selling sustainability, we’re selling performance.”
Among the next products in development are another optical film, for launch in 2022, and a next-generation film that could be used in flexible electronics and as insulation for antennas to deliver 5G data speeds, planned for 2023. In agriculture, meanwhile, it is working on a bio-based, non-Deet insect repellant and a microbial alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
“We’re still in the first mile of a 100-mile race,” says Hoffman, who owns just over 3 million shares of stock worth $93 million at the offering price. “The goal was not to create a company to go public. It was to create a generation-defining company that allows us to make products in a better way. It’s going to be years before we fully realize that.”
I’m a senior editor at Forbes, where I cover manufacturing, industrial innovation and consumer products. I also edit the Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before rejoining Forbes in 2016, I was a senior writer or staff writer at BusinessWeek, Money and the New York Daily News. My work has also appeared in Barron’s, Inc., the New York Times and numerous other publications. I’m based in New York, but my family is from Pittsburgh—and I love stories that get me out into the industrial heartland. Ping me with ideas, or follow me on Twitter @amyfeldman.
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