Dec 18, 2020

Building the Jetsons’ car: How biology is changing the way we make tomorrow

Exponential technologies transform business and society. That’s the thesis of “Exponetial View,” the Harvard Business Review podcast with Azeem Azhar. Our CEO Josh Hoffman spoke with Azhar about the exponential power of biology to transform everything from plastics to clothing. They explored the limitations of petroleum-derived materials, and how we at Zymergen are creating products that are not just better performing, but also better for the environment. Here are three ideas from the conversation worth repeating.

“The petrochemical process is a sledgehammer; nature is operating with scalpels.”

Petrochemistry is amazing and ubiquitous. From toothpaste to towels to turbine parts, so many products we depend on today are made with petroleum-derived materials. But we’re reaching our limits in creating new materials with it. It’s the reason we don’t have flying cars, why making a vaccine in one year’s time counts as a big success, and your phone screen breaks instead of bends. The $3 trillion chemical and materials industry is stagnant, growing slower than global GDP. Simply put, it isn’t keeping pace with the world.

On the other hand, biology—and specifically engineered microbes—are opening up new pathways for creating high-performance, environmentally sustainable materials for the 21st century. Biology enables us to create products that are both more efficient and that are produced more efficiently. As Josh puts it: “It starts to make better products that, frankly, I can’t even imagine today.”

“This is not science fiction and not even science future—it’s science fact.”

Nature has been producing materials for millions of years, so it’s put a lot of hours into the “discovery laboratory.” It’s very precise. We can use that pallet of molecular diversity to achieve properties oil and natural gas simply cannot.

Advances in molecular biology and machine learning have enabled us to build a technology platform that not only pushes the boundaries of what molecular science can uncover, it pushes the boundaries of science itself. 

Azeem Azhar, “Exponential View” podcast host

Say you fancy having a Jetsons-style bubble car, with a large glass canopy that doubles as a massive touch-screen display and has opacity controls for privacy. You’re going to need materials that are flexible, transparent, that can hold nanowire circuitry, and adhere well to hard materials like glass. We can search biology’s broad palette of molecules to find those with the precise properties we need, and ferment them with microbes using the same basic technique we use to make bread, chocolate, and wine.

That’s exactly how we made our bioelectronic film Hyaline, recently cited as one of six commercially-available products that are changing our world. It’s an example of how we partner with nature to make better products in a better way. 

“A new technology alters the production economics of an industry.”

Zymergen’s manufacturing process is more like a winery than a refinery. It is much lighter weight, more flexible, and can be built and activated much faster and for less capital….all of which delivers the end product to market faster. And it’s a lot less hazardous.

There have been tremendous advances in DNA sequencing, compute and storage, machine learning, automation, and genetic editing over the last 10-15 years. All of these are exponential technologies in their own right. We combine them to make the best biofacturing platform in the industry. “We couldn’t have built the platform we’ve got today 10 years ago,” Josh explains.

Industry has been using biology to make things like pharmaceutical and agricultural products for decades. What’s new is how we use an exponential platform to go from the DNA in a teaspoon of soil to a million pounds of product in half the time and one-tenth the cost.

This is what we call biofacturing, and it’s fundamentally changing how things are made.