Donovan decodes biology’s blueprints with the power of data science

NAME:

Donovan Layton

ROLE:

Data Science Manager

JOINED:

2017

When Donovan Layton was a kid, he thought he wanted to be an aerospace engineer. Then a high school teacher helped him discover a love for chemistry, and he decided to pursue chemical engineering at Iowa State University. After he began working in the Undergraduate Research Lab, his mother unearthed an old drawing from when he was a boy. It was a man converting garbage into fuel to power his car. At that moment, Donovan realized he was pursuing the thing he’d wanted to do all his life.

At Zymergen, Donovan helps to understand how effectively and efficiently microorganisms can create a target molecule, using a combination of theoretical approaches. He and his team use this information to get smarter about finding biological solutions to challenging problems.

“I lead a data science team called Performance Modeling.”

We aim to understand what the performance of a microorganism can be. We can take a couple of theoretical approaches, such as understanding the maximum theoretical yield of a molecule in specific microbial hosts, and run it through several types of simulations, for example a fermentation simulation. This approach helps us understand performance and potential associated costs. We use certain outputs as an initial guiding principle for our fermentation scientists and for our business team.

“We complement each other.”

Scientists and our business team come up with targets, and then we data scientists work with them, leveraging our different knowledge sets. That’s how we’re able to have success—we collaborate from the start. We work together throughout the entire process and refine our model as we get new data. It’s highly collaborative. My team and I touch almost every part of the organization.

“There’s a story in every molecule.”

You just have to know how to read them. There’s always a journey to get from ideation to realization. That’s what we hope to explain, that there are different paths you can take. It’s not always linear due to the complexities of biology. A lot of times we have to travel down windy roads to understand how to get from point A to point B.

“It’s exactly where I want to be.”

After graduate school, I came to Zymergen and was impressed by the people, the culture, how they were thinking about engineering biology and the potential of it. Zymergen enables us to do research at scale in a way I haven’t seen before: by combining incredible technology and analytics with biology to get useful, real-world results faster. Zymergen fits exactly with what I want to do.

“We’re here because we believe in what we’re doing.”

I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in what we’re doing. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think this place was excellent. We have the mindset that we’re here to succeed both in business and in how we improve the planet. We’re here to make a positive difference in the world.

“We’re on a mission to make better things through biology.”

We’re just now scratching the surface of what biology and the molecules that biology can create can do for us. Biology provides the blueprints, and we are just now learning to read them. And that’s really exciting.

WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER:
Aerospace engineer.

WHAT DID YOU STUDY:
Chemical and biomolecular engineering.

SOMETHING THAT INSPIRED YOU RECENTLY:
Conversations with friends and colleagues outside of Zymergen to use biology for transforming our future. It is inspiring to know others are as excited as we are since we are all in this together!

ONE THING MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU:
I have a brick installed at Kauffman Stadium, where the Kansas City Royals play, dedicated to my dad.

BEST ADVICE YOU’VE RECEIVED:
Practice humility; a dismissed perspective is a missed opportunity.