The best business partner Shawn’s ever had? Nature
Shawn Manchester was employee number eleven at Zymergen and has worn more hats than most during his time here. After finishing postdoctoral research at MIT, he joined the company as a scientist and helped build its high-throughput strain engineering platform. Then he became a technical lead for the first strain improvement program to reach commercialization. After seeing how the Zymergen platform can drive value for customers, he transitioned to business development, and now in his current role as product director, he delivers novel films to market. For Shawn, it’s a step toward realizing the company goals he helped shape back in 2014.
“The goal has always been to make our own products because the impact is so much greater.”
When I joined the company, we focused on helping other companies develop better products through biology. We always knew we’d shift to making our own products. We’re in the middle of that shift right now.
“It’s a change in the way materials are made.”
The default way most things are made—it’s a system that requires all of the fossil fuels we can get. It can lead to incredible environmental deterioration on a variety of levels. We, as a species, will not be able to sustainably create the materials and products that we want in the long term. I think and hope fossil fuel-based production is tied to a particular time in human history, and we at Zymergen can help to bring about a new and better way to do things.
“Biology has been making products forever.”
The reason why biology is so different and so interesting is that we get to take advantage of billions of years of design that have created some impressively high-performance molecules and products. Importantly, biology is particularly good at complexity, which is key for high performance. What we need to do as a species, I believe, is to develop a sustainable way of creating products with features that people expect and want. Our approach is to work with nature to make these things without compromise.
“Our partners like Sumitomo have a unique view into what customers are going to want in their next generation of products.”
We spend a lot of time talking with companies about not just what their customers want now, but what they want next year. With that information, we design a solution. Then those companies introduce us to their suppliers. They say, ‘hey, trusted supplier, we want Zymergen’s solution.’
“We want to own design, completely.”
We start with a catalog of molecules that can be made from biology. What we hear from the market is: ‘people want this functionality’ or ‘people are interested in this kind of feature.’ Connecting bio-based molecules to those product features is hard, but that connection is core to what we do. We identify a need, then we design a bio-based solution that delivers on it. Once that relationship between feature and solution is validated, we create a process that allows for economical production of that solution at massive scale.
“Seeing our technology work at scale for the first time in a real commercial process was pretty exciting.”
In 2016, I was part of the team that delivered our first strain into a partner’s fermentation facility. We took a facility that makes over 200,000 tons of product a year, and we replaced their production strain with a strain that we had made for them.
“People say things like, ‘oh, wow, we’ve been waiting for something like this.’”
I’ve really enjoyed the project we’re working on now—launching one of our polyimide films. There is a clear need for new materials in the electronics space, so when we show up with one, everyone gets excited. Seeing the value product designers find in our materials is the best part of my job right now and reaffirms our belief that biology holds the key to building better products in a better way for people and the planet.
WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER:
When I was really little I wanted to be an astronaut. I’ve always been an avid reader of science fiction and excited about all things futuristic and high tech. In high school I thought I might be a better diplomat, and so considered that for a while. I feel that my current job as a business leader at a technology company is a blend of those two childhood interests, so I’m pretty happy with how things turned out.
WHAT DID YOU STUDY:
I studied chemical engineering in both undergrad and graduate school. For my PhD thesis I worked on cellular engineering in yeast.
SOMETHING THAT INSPIRED YOU RECENTLY:
I have been greatly inspired by the shift in the last decade or so around our cultural relationship to gender and queer equality. The #MeToo movement has made incredible strides in working to eradicate sexual violence, and I think it’s fantastic that we had an openly gay Democratic presidential primary candidate without constantly discussing his sexuality. This progress gives me great hope for our species and society.
ONE THING MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU:
I’ve been known to cry at the end of a good movie. 🙂
BEST ADVICE YOU’VE RECEIVED:
Zach Serber, one of our co-founders, gave me great advice about leadership: “your goal as a leader should be to make yourself redundant.” He meant that empowering those around you to be successful, developing their skills and making sure it was the team, and not you as a leader, that was successful, was the best way to lead.