Apr 22, 2021

Taking a partnership with nature public: A founders’ perspective

From the seed of an idea to seed rounds and beyond, it’s an extraordinary moment for making better products in a better way.

IPO Day, New York

Eight years ago, we started a journey together with a shared vision for making better products with biology. What were once just ideas are now working systems. Where we once had only hypotheses, today we have proof points and a pipeline of products.

And today, on Earth Day, we proudly take Zymergen public. And we’re doing so as a public benefit corporation.

It has been an emotional journey for each of us as founders. We believe our history provides some insights and an opportunity to bring you — our public stakeholders — into the story. Whether you’re a farmer, manufacturer, student, investor, or simply someone who cares about our world, we hope that sharing some of this history gives you a sense of who we are, where we are going, and why Zymergen matters.

Anchors aweigh: Our humble beginnings

Zymergen’s first office: Zach and Pippa’s boat.

Zymergen’s first office: Zach and Pippa’s boat.

First off, how did we get here? In one sense, by boat.

Zach and his wife began living on a boat in grad school. “We were nuts,” says Zach, “but it was what Pippa and I could afford, and we spent every spare moment keeping her afloat and fixing her up.” That boat became Zymergen’s first office while we were trying to figure things out.

For his part, Jed remembers spending a lot of time in cafes.

“I spent hundreds of hours at La Scala,” he says, “surrounded by other startup founders, many of us in our ‘assigned seats’, all of us trying to build our businesses.” Every once in a while Jed stops by, sometimes seeing the same people and remembering what those early days were like. “It’s amazing how much we’ve grown — it’s a humbling experience.”

Zymergen’s first robotics table

Setting up Zymergen’s first robotics table on the lab floor. All of Zymergen fit into this space at one time, from biological discovery to fermentation scale-up.

Raising seed money meant raising money from people we knew and who believed in us. Jed remembers writing the check for an early equipment purchase. “It was incredibly stressful — this was money from our families and friends!”

As we grew beyond the seed stage, we visited some of the world’s top factories in industries as wide-ranging as batteries, semiconductors, consumer electronics, and car parts for inspiration and insights on how to build a world-class biofacturing company.

Zymergen circa 2014

Left: Will Serber and Aaron Kimball with Zymergen’s first server rack, circa 2014. Right: Josh and Jed in Japan.

“Back in the early days,” recalls Zach, “the one core value we could crisply articulate was that we all need to assume goodwill on behalf of our colleagues — thoughtful, brilliant people, all committed to the same things, and coming at the world differently, through the lens of their own unique experiences.”

Joash and Ena. Josh and Zach

Left: Josh with CFO Ena Singh on a late-night drive in the Middle East during a Series C funding trip. Right: Josh and Zach on big calls before the furniture arrived.

Coupled with this mutual respect has been a discipline — instilled by Josh — of getting in there and having the tough conversations about whether our ideas were advancing our commercial aims and truly making the team and our enterprise better. “This has become a core discipline and competence,” Josh says. “It is how we achieve our mission faster.”

On becoming a public benefit corporation

Back in those early days, we raised the prospect of becoming a public benefit corporation. At the time, we frankly felt it might spook investors into thinking we weren’t committed to increasing shareholder value. But investors and other companies are catching on. More and more companies will follow our lead in saying we stand for a lot more than just profits.

Becoming a PBC right now suits us because we’ve demonstrated that you can increase shareholder value through a business model whose foundation is environmental. We want to resolve the false choice between people and the planet, between profitability and sustainability.

We are incredibly proud of our public mission to make products with broad applications and global reach that are safer for the people who manufacture them, healthier for the people who use them, and better for the environment.

Why Earth Day matters to us

It is wonderful and serendipitous that we are going public on Earth Day. It happens to coincide with our birthday. But more importantly, we founded Zymergen on a sustainability premise: that biology can make better products that are better for the environment. That was just eight years ago. Today, Earth Day has a new urgency. Our climate crisis is much more palpable, and the demand for new material solutions to humanity’s problems has never been greater.

We must shift to manufacturing technologies that don’t accelerate global warming. We must find ways to create products that don’t clog our waterways or poison our oceans. Consumers, regulators, businesses — all of us want solutions to these problems.

As a public company, our goal is to resolve the false choice between better products and a healthy planet. This is an important perspective we hope to bring to the ethos of Earth Day and the environmental movement itself.

The seed we grow from

Zymergen is entering an exciting new phase, but our vision remains the same: We aim to be the catalyst for an industrial revolution that creates a vibrant, sustainable future through biology. As a seed of an idea, Zymergen aspired to be a vibrant business with decades of global impact. Today we launched a first-in-class biofacturing company into the public markets, and we grew a little closer to that vision.

We are grateful for those who have helped us get to this point, and we’re excited about the future. We invite you to come with us on our journey and see how we make tomorrow.