Zymergen has raised $130 million to advance its machine learning-enabled microbe design business. The investment, which comes less than 18 months after a $44 million Series A, will enable Zymergen to grow its capacity and team in a bid to cement itself as the operation businesses turn to when they need a microbe engineered to produce an ingredient.
Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank led the sizable Series B round with support from Data Collective and other existing investors. The investors were attracted by the potential for Zymergen to upend the industrial ingredient market using microbe engineering. Zymergen uses machine learning to spot the genes that are likely to code for production of a protein, and then tasks its robots with creating modified microbes capable of pumping out the desired ingredient.
Zymergen is staying tight-lipped about the identities of its customers, but has spoken in vague terms about what work it is doing and for which sorts of companies. The Financial Times reports Zymergen is creating microbes to produce generic pharmaceuticals for one client. And a Zymergen investor told Fortune the company lists Fortune 500 drugmakers among its customers. Zymergen is also active in the food, chemical and agricultural sectors.
The applicability of Zymergen’s process and technology to many of the world’s biggest industries is one reason investors have thrown money at the company. Another is the belief that it is establishing an unassailable position.
“Let’s say Apple woke up tomorrow and said they’d spend $100 million to kill Zymergen,” Data Collective Managing Director Matt Ocko told Forbes. “They couldn’t do it. In the time they’d hire and research and figure out each of the multiple thousand of steps that Zymergen has proven, Zymergen would be moving geometrically ahead.”
Yet, while Apple ($AAPL) might not be able to sink Zymergen, companies that already have a foothold in the microbe engineering game may curb its prospects. Novo Nordisk ($NVO)-spinout Novozymes has been in the microbe engineering game for longer than Zymergen has existed. And rival microbe manipulator startup Ginkgo Bioworks has gone toe to toe with Zymergen on the financing front.
The round continues the escalating financial arms race in the synthetic biology sector. Zymergen got the ball rolling in June 2015 when it unveiled a $44 million Series A. The next month, Ginkgo took the wraps off a $45 million Series B. Ginkgo returned to investors in June of this year to raise $100 million. And now Zymergen has topped that round with its $130 million financing. That flurry of activity has funneled $328 million into the SynBio trailblazers in a little more than 18 months.
While Ginkgo and Zymergen both design microbes to produce molecules, they diverge somewhat in how they approach the task. Whereas Ginkgo presents its process as being tech-enabled but human led, Zymergen has put robots and software front and center.