Apr 8, 2021

From atoms to bytes and back again: How DNA spells manufacturing in the digital age

Deep tech and nature co-design suggest potential for a better way of making our world.

Image showing Zymergen Values

Zymergen’s biofacturing platform epitomizes the fusion of digital, physical, and biological technologies that may come to represent The Fourth Industrial Revolution, says Boston Consulting Group in two new reports.

The concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution entered the public discourse around 2015. There are different interpretations of what it means, but most point to a fusion of digital, physical, and biological technologies that catalyzes new and better ways of making things. This next phase of advancement is driven by a greater human-machine-technology interface, smart manufacturing, and more widespread adoption of what is commonly referred to as “deep tech.”

Investor and technologist Swati Chaturvedi is credited with coining the term “deep tech” to differentiate technologies and businesses that are “founded on a scientific discovery or meaningful engineering innovation.” Deep tech companies are built on highly complex technologies like artificial intelligence, deep learning, and genetic engineering, deployed in service of groundbreaking, life-changing discoveries — not just tech used to sell more ads.

Researchers at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Hello Tomorrow recently published two new reports that explore the emerging opportunities at the intersection of these two concepts: Deep Tech: The Great Wave of Innovation and Nature Co-Design: A Revolution in the Making. Zymergen is proud to be featured in these reports for the work we are doing at the intersection of technology and biology, making high-performance products more sustainably by partnering with the natural world.

Zymergen as a deep tech company

“Deep tech ventures operate at the convergence of technologies leading to fundamental innovation. This often results in a very ‘new’ physical product for which no similar product has been scaled up before.”

Zymergen’s goal is to be a product company, first and foremost. But to be able to make the products and materials our customers are looking for, we first created a powerful platform. While we didn’t specifically follow a “deep tech” formula, in many ways our biofacturing platform epitomizes the kind of deep tech approach the authors are talking about. Here are four key characteristics they use to describe a deep tech company:

  • Problem-oriented, not technology-driven
  • Situated at the convergence of technologies – in our case, biology, chemistry, automation and digital technology
  • Innovation away from the digital world (“bits”) towards the physical one (“atoms“) – again, in our case, we are developing physical products, rather than software
  • Reliant on a deeply interconnected ecosystem of actors or partners

All of these summaries apply to Zymergen. We created a company at the intersection of biology, chemistry and digital technology because that’s where we saw the greatest opportunity to solve tough global challenges. The problem is the goal, biology has the answers, the technology is the means to the end and we deliver better products.

They call it nature co-design, we call it biofacturing

Deep tech is an important part of our story. Our platform is the combination of many layers of deep tech working together to enable our partnership with the original manufacturing leader – nature. But as the authors point out, “deep tech is not about bringing in-house the last shiny technology. It is about enabling the convergence of approaches.”

In the second of their two papers, the authors define this convergence in the biological realm as nature co-design: “where biology, material science, and nanotechnology meet to leverage nature’s design principles and manufacturing capabilities at the atomic level.” At Zymergen, we call this biofacturing, and our particular brand of convergence involves understanding and unlocking biology, finding the natural chemistries with the most desirable properties, and using that information to develop new products and materials.

Our biofacturing platform includes molecular biology tools, lab automation, software, data science and machine learning. This is our “deep tech” stack, which is designed to allow us to take a vertically integrated approach to pinpoint molecules from nature’s catalog, to produce them with biology, and to scale them to market at the speed of the digital age.

Our platform is structured to evolve and improve with each new piece of data or tested process.

Better things, made a better way

Many of the concepts we have long embraced feel like they are arriving in mainstream industrial thinking. These two reports help describe incredibly important opportunities and practices that we believe can help usher in a whole new way of building – with biology.  As I shared at the opening, our goal is to be  a product company. We invested in creating a biofacturing platform that can be pointed at lots of challenges across a host of verticals. And unlike the incumbents, the solutions we develop may very well be something wholly revolutionary….a material that simply doesn’t exist today.

Making better things a better way is our call to action. Consumers demand it, our future necessitates it.

Learn more about biofacturing at Zymergen, or read the Boston Consulting Group/Hello Tomorrow reports on Deep Tech and Nature Co-Design.