Q&A with Jason Kelly, Cofounder of Ginkgo Bioworks

by Y Combinator10/17/2018

We put together a list of the top YC companies by valuation as of October 2018. You can see that list at https://ycombinator.com/topcompanies.

Here’s a Q&A with Jason Kelly, Cofounder of Ginkgo Bioworks, one of the companies featured on the list.

What does Ginkgo Bioworks do?
We make GMOs that do useful things.

How many employees does Ginkgo Bioworks have?

How many founders?

What is your most impressive recent product milestone?
Our foundries are rapid prototypers for genetically engineered microbes. We’re building custom software and automation to design and synthesize DNA code, build and test strains, and create and track workflows. We’ve been doubling in capacity and scale every six months and we just hit a symbolic milestone of 10 million samples tracked through the foundry.

What is the larger impact / societal impact of your product in the space you work within?
Biology is the most powerful technology on the planet. We see the potential for biology to impact how we make everything, from the nanoscale to the global scale. In agriculture, we’ve teamed up with Bayer on a joint venture called Joyn Bio to engineer soil microbes to tackle problems like pollution from nitrogen fertilizer or emerging plant diseases. In medicine, we’re working with Synlogic, helping them engineer probiotic bacteria to treat diseases directly in the gut. We’re also working on engineering microbes that can grow all sorts of products and materials, from nutritional products to flavors and fragrances to the active ingredients in cannabis.

With the enormous potential for positive impact from biology, there are of course also risks, from the evolution of natural pandemics to the potential for the misuse of biotechnologies. We’ve been working with the government on biosecurity projects to build tools for safety and security alongside the growth of the technology.

What’s an interesting element of Ginkgo Bioworks’s company culture?
One of the most important parts of Ginkgo is our culture of aggressive learning. We’re often in uncharted territory and on steep learning curves, and we need to know how to ask for help and how to learn.

Looking back, what motivated you to start Ginkgo Bioworks?
Engineering biology is hard. It’s programming without a debugger, manufacturing without CAD, and construction without cranes. Back when we were at MIT, we saw the need to build a company and a team that can build debuggers, write CAD, and operate cranes.

Is what you’re working on now the original idea or did you pivot?
Our mission has always been to make biology easier to engineer. That’s always going to be at the core of Ginkgo even as we’re pursuing projects in very different industries.

What’s one piece of advice you’d share with a young founder?
If you work on something you deeply care about then you don’t need to be in a rush. We worked on technology development at Ginkgo for 5 years before we did YC and then hit the gas on scaling. If we hadn’t taken our time at the start the technology platform would have fallen apart when we scaled.


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