Oct 28, 2020

Disruption starts with discovery

by Arjan Zoombelt, PhD, Senior Materials Scientist at Zymergen

The limits of the materials we use today present challenges for making better products tomorrow. Developing new materials with properties that are currently unimaginable is the next great opportunity for scientists and inventors. There are unmet market needs across transportation, agriculture, aerospace and more, but without new materials as the building blocks, there is only incremental progress toward satisfying those needs. Zymergen is a science and material innovation company working to satisfy those needs with biology.

The last truly transformative material invention came almost 100 years ago with the development and introduction of what today is most commonly referred to as plastic (in all its many forms). Very few people alive today will remember the world without plastic. The majority of the population has experienced fundamentally the same materials their whole lives. Centenarians can, perhaps, remember a time without synthetic polymers, when everything was made out of materials from nature: henequen rope, leather and wool jackets, metal water bottles and so on. Inside of two or three generations, a single material completely changed the way we live.

But while plastic has enabled substantial product innovation, there is far less innovation at the core material level. It is still a petroleum-based family of materials, with a fairly consistent (and tired) development process. The leading materials companies often risk cannibalizing their offerings by innovating against their own entrenched products, which serves to slow the pace of change even more.

When it comes to new material development, digging in the same old mine won’t likely surface new jewels. It requires an entirely new approach to the practice. To achieve the kind of transformative innovation we saw with plastics, we must discover new ways of discovering.

At Zymergen, we’re wholly rethinking material innovation—with biology. Biology is the ultimate manufacturing system, and we have figured out how to harness that power, unlock the infinite complexity of nature, and create new materials. Identifying the initial molecules that have material promise is the metaphorical equivalent of finding a needle in a billion haystacks. But we have found the way.

Building with Biology: New Material Creation Starts with New Molecule Discovery

A large part of Zymergen’s early work was to identify methods of discovery and development of new materials with highly desirable properties for use across a number of applications. Materials made from biology.

From the beginning, we have tried to be molecule and microbe agnostic, exploring all the dark corners of biology where no one has looked before. Over time, we’ve hardened and validated our discovery and development process, which has ultimately informed how we bio-manufacture the monomers used to create our film product: Hyaline.

The Future of Film

Hyaline is our opening salvo in what we believe will be an unprecedented cycle of innovation for electronics. That means disrupting an entire industry with things like flexible devices, cases and screens that absorb impact instead of shattering. Biology presented us with a whole new set of raw materials to build with.

The electronics industry has used the same substrates for 10-20 years, typically PET, metal foil, Kapton, or glass. We know how the electronic films market has been historically served in terms of mechanical, thermal, optical, and electrical properties, and we’ve demonstrated that applying our design framework to monomers and polymers allows us to make films that are far superior to what’s out there. Our work challenged some widely held ideas about what polyimides can be. We started with the idea that biomolecules are more complex and should be able to make more complex polymers with new properties. With the first Hyaline offering, we are delivering the first of these polymers at scale.

Hyaline is a profound change for the industry and a significant milestone in our journey to make better materials a better way. Imagine thinner wearables, integrated circuits, better medical devices, automotive applications and more, all made possible by Hyaline. For Zymergen, films are only the beginning.

Material performance alone is a benefit, but we are also demonstrating substantial improvements in development speed. We are consistently improving and accelerating our work, utilizing our proprietary automation and computational screening processes.

Better Products, Made a Better Way

As mentioned earlier, material innovation has been slow and incremental, often following a more formulaic approach. The last notable development was when a new process for manufacturing PLA was discovered in the ‘80s, and since then, we’ve seen only marginal improvements in performance. The ability to discover new building blocks and translate those discoveries into inventions of new materials is a paradigm shift. The Hyaline films are a critical proof point that it is possible to make better materials a better way, and we will see new electronics products in the coming months and years that benefit from our innovations—foldable phones, higher optical quality and more.

But Zymergen isn’t an electronics company—it’s a platform company. Early engagements supercharged our discovery and development process, helping us intelligently filter thousands of molecules and selecting a valuable few. This work was made possible by our platform, which incorporates powerful automation and machine learning capabilities and gives our scientists and engineers unprecedented ability to collaborate, discover, and develop new materials from natural products. It’s an entirely new toolset for an entirely new approach.

So, what’s next? Part one was making a better material and proving what’s possible. Part two is expanding our portfolio footprint to include materials to satisfy unmet market needs and beat incumbent materials on performance, price and more across industries.

Learn more about our first film product, Hyaline.

Additional writing and documentation support provided by: Abhiram Kannan, Adam Safir, Chris McGann, Kelby Hull, Justin Kerszulis, Stefan de Kok, Patrick Homyak, Steven Edgar and Patrick Martens

This article originally appeared in the August issue of Industrial Biotechnology, Vol. 16, No. 4