Company: Ginkgo Bioworks
Reshma Shetty is one of the co-founders of synthetic biology’s first unicorn. But what does that mean exactly? It means Ginkgo Bioworks is quite successful—going from a group of undergrad founders with almost no money to a $4 billion company in just 11 years—in a fast-growing field that works to engineer cells using technology.
Ginkgo works across several industries, including pharma, but also agriculture and food. In pharma, they’re currently working with Roche on a project to discover new antibiotics and with Synlogic Therapeutics to develop living medicines, or engineered microbes that serve as therapeutics, Shetty said.
Shetty discovered her love for biological research as a teenager, but she didn’t care for biology classes in college. So she became a computer science major instead. Later, she figured out how to merge her two passions and earned a Ph.D. in biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
That’s where she met her co-founders—three other Ph.D.s in her class and her then-adviser, Professor Tom Knight. They talked about plans after graduation and decided to start their own company.
Ginkgo is a platform company that develops software programs to help researchers and scientists write, compile and debug cells instead of code, Shetty explained.
“We started with a mission to make biology easier to engineer,” she said. “The cool thing about biology is that you sort of take it for granted but it’s all around you. You can look out at the natural world and see all the amazing things it's capable of, and we really wanted to harness that and use it for useful means.”
She is most proud of the team they’ve built at Ginkgo, made up of people who are “passionate about doing good in the world.”
One recent project involved chasing down a plant that had vanished from the earth. Not surprisingly, the people at Ginkgo are fans of the movie Jurassic Park, which, for the few who don’t know, is a fictional tale about scientists who use DNA from extinct dinosaurs to create new ones that, not surprisingly, run amok. The Ginkgo group took a tiny page from that script to try to resurrect the scent of that extinct flower.
They went to museums for a sample and finally obtained a very small bit of the Hawaiian mountain hibiscus from the Harvard University Herbaria and Botanical Museum. Working with a paleogenetics lab, Ginkgo sequenced the DNA from the sample and inferred what the scent gene would be, Shetty explained. Then they worked with a perfumist to come up with that posited scent. The results are on display in several museums around the world.
Speaking of the fictional Jurassic pandemonium, Shetty said Ginkgo realizes its responsibility to ensure that technology is used for good—an effort that includes software safeguards, community and researcher vetting and participating in conversations around biosecurity, biosafety and regulations.
For pharma, Ginkgo’s work translates to the projects with Roche and Synlogic mentioned previously, but also to cell-based therapies that could cross many disease states and conditions. Shetty’s goal is to get to a commercial launch.
“We’d love to see a Ginkgo-based engineered organism FDA-approved therapy,” she said.