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Is Ginkgo’s synthetic-biology story worth $15 billion?

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photograph of the founders of Ginkgo Bioworks


“Times must be good when a young biotech company can afford to hire people to write unrelated magazine-style articles,” snarked Dirk Haussecker, a savvy biotech stock picker who is active on Twitter.

Kelly says the magazine was inspired by Think, a periodical printed by IBM starting in the 1930s. “Why did they do that? Well, no one knew what the heck a computer was,” says Kelly, who sees Ginkgo playing a similar role as an evangelist for the possibilities of genetic engineering.

During a podcast, journalists with Stat News compared Ginkgo to a “meme stock,” or “stonk,” positioned to appeal to an investing public chasing trends without regard for business fundamentals. When the SPAC deal is finalized—sometime in September—the company is going to trade under the stock symbol “DNA,” once owned by Genentech, an early hero of the biotech scene. “Ginkgo Bioworks does not deserve to use the DNA ticker,” said Stat stock reporter Adam Feuerstein.

SPACs are a Wall Street trend that offers an IPO path with a little less than the usual scrutiny of a company’s financial outlook. Will Gornall, a business school professor at the University of British Columbia, believes that they democratize investor access to hot sectors but can also overestimate companies’ value. Some deals, like the one that took Richard Branson’s space company Virgin Galactic Holdings public, have done well, but five electric-car companies that went public via SPACs were subsequently pummeled with what Bloomberg called “brutal” corrections.

Gornall can see a bettor’s logic to the Ginkgo gamble. In recent years stock market profits have been driven by just a handful of tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft—each now worth more than a trillion dollars. “The valuation could make sense if there is even a 1% chance that biology is the computer of the future and this is the company that achieves that,” says Gornall.

Other people’s products

Since it was founded, Ginkgo has spent nearly half a billion dollars, much of it building labs equipped with robots, gene sequencers and sophisticated lab instruments such as mass spectrometers. These “foundries” allow it to test genes added to microorganisms (often yeast) or other cells. It claims it can create 50,000 different genetically modified cells in a single day. A typical aim of a foundry project is to assess which of hundreds of versions of a given gene is particularly good at, say, turning sugar into a specific chemical. Kelly says customers can use Ginkgo’s services instead of building their own lab.

What’s missing from Ginkgo’s story is any blockbuster products resulting from its research service. “If you are labeling yourself ‘synbio,’ that is setting the bar high for success—you are saying you are going to the moon,” says Koeris. “You’ve raised so much money against a fantastic vision that soon you need to have a transformative product, whether a drug or some crazy industrial product.”

To date, Ginkgo’s engineering of yeast cells has led to commercial production of three fragrance molecules, Kelly says. Robert Weinstein, president and CEO of the US arm of the flavor and additives maker Robertet, confirmed that his company now ferments two such molecules using yeast engineered by Kelly’s company. One, gamma-decalactone, has a strong peach scent. The other, massoia lactone, is a clear liquid normally isolated from the bark of a tropical tree; used as flavoring, it can sell online for $1,200 a kilogram. Running a fermenter year-round could generate a few million dollars’ worth of such a specialty chemical.

Organism engineers: The five founders of Ginkgo Bioworks met at MIT. From the left: Reshma Shetty, Barry Canton, Jason Kelly, Austin Che, Tom Knight.

GINGKO BIOWORKS

To George Church, a professor at Harvard Medical School, such products don’t yet live up to the promise that synthetic biology will widely transform manufacturing. “I think flavors and fragrances is very far from the vision that biology can make anything,” says Church. Kelly also sometimes struggles to reconcile the “disruptive” potential he sees for synthetic biology with what Ginkgo has achieved. Church drew my attention to a May report in the Boston Globe about Ginkgo’s merger with Soaring Eagle. In it, Kelly said his firm was an attractive investment because the world was becoming familiar with the extraordinary potential of synthetic biology, citing the covid-19 vaccines made from messenger RNA and the animal-free proteins in new plant burgers, like those from Impossible Foods.

“The article was a list of achievements, but the most interesting achievements were from others,” says Church. “It doesn’t seem to add up to $15 billion to me.” Still, Church says he hopes that Ginkgo does succeed. Not only is the company his “favorite unicorn,” but it acquired the remains of some of his own synthetic-bio startups after they went bust (he also recently sold a company to Zymergen). How Ginkgo performs in the future “could help our whole field or hurt our whole field,” he says.

While Ginkgo’s work has not led to any blockbusters, and Kelly allows it’s “frustrating” that biotech takes so long, he says products from other customers are coming soon. The Cannabis company Cronos, based in Canada, says by the end of the year it will be selling intoxicating pineapple-flavored candy containing CBG, a molecular component of the marijuana flower; Ginkgo helped show it how to make the compound in yeast. A spinout from Ginkgo, called Motif FoodWorks, says it expects to have a synthetically produced meat flavor available this year as well.



Tech

The Download: dual-driving AI, and Russia’s Telegram propaganda

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This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

The news: Wayve, a driverless-car startup based in London, has made a machine-learning model that can drive two different types of vehicle: a passenger car and a delivery van. It is the first time the same AI driver has learned to drive multiple vehicles.

Why it matters: While robotaxis have made it to a handful of streets in Phoenix and San Francisco, their success has been limited. Wayve is part of a new generation of startups ditching the traditional robotics mindset—where driverless cars rely on super-detailed 3D maps and modules for sensing and planning. Instead, these startups rely entirely on AI to drive the vehicles.

What’s next: The advance suggests that Wayve’s approach to autonomous vehicles, in which a deep-learning model is trained to drive from scratch, could help it scale up faster than its leading rivals. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

Putin’s propaganda: When Vladimir Putin declared the partial call-up of military reservists on September 21, in a desperate effort to try to turn his long and brutal war in Ukraine in Russia’s favor, he kicked off another, parallel battle: one to convince the Russian people of the merits and risks of conscription. And this one is being fought on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

Opposing forces: Following the announcement, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels began to line up dutifully behind Putin’s plans, eager to promote the idea that the war he is waging is just and winnable.  But whether this vein of propaganda is working is far from certain. For all the work the government is doing to try to control the narrative, there’s a vibrant opposition on the same platform working to undermine it—and offering support for those seeking to dodge the draft. Read the full story.

—Chris Stokel-Walker

NASA’s DART mission is on track to crash into an asteroid today

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, or DART, is on course to collide with the asteroid Dimorphos at 7.14pm ET today. Though Dimorphos is not about to collide with Earth, DART is intended to demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid like it that is headed our way, should one ever be discovered.

Read more about the DART mission, and how the crash is likely to play out.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US says Russia will face catastrophe if it uses nuclear weapons
It’s hard to know whether Putin’s threat is a bluff—or deadly serious. (The Guardian)
+ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky thinks it is very real. (CNBC)
+ What is the risk of a nuclear accident in Ukraine? (MIT Technology Review)

2 YouTube wants to lure creators away from TikTok with cash
But it won’t say how much. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Germany’s zero-tolerance for hate speech is a double-edged sword
While the threat of fines disincentivizes some perpetrators, activists worry that too many people are being targeted. (NYT $)
+ Misinformation is already shaping US voters’ decisions ahead of November’s midterms. (NYT $)

4 Why even the largest companies are vulnerable to hacking
A zero-trust approach is helpful, but will only take you so far. (WSJ $)
+ Hackers can disrupt image-recognition systems using radio waves. (New Scientist $)
+ Microsoft is optimistic that AI can root out bad actors. (Bloomberg $)
+ The hacking industry faces the end of an era. (MIT Technology Review)

5 NASA’s Artemis moon mission has been delayed again
Due to tropical storm Ian. (BBC)
+ Saudi Arabia wants to send its first female astronaut into space. (Insider $)

6 Fighting climate change extends beyond kicking corporations
A more nuanced approach could be required to speed up the transition to cleaner energy. (The Atlantic $)
+ Global wildfires mean that snow is melting quicker than usual. (Slate $)
+ Disaster insurance is increasingly tricky to navigate. (Knowable Magazine)
+ Carbon removal hype is becoming a dangerous distraction. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Crypto’s fired workers don’t know what to do next
But plenty of them haven’t let their experiences put them off the sector. (The Information $)
+ Interpol has issued a red notice for Terraform Labs’ co-founder Do Kwon. (Bloomberg $) 

8 The Danish city that banned Google
The tech giant’s handling of children’s data wasn’t properly assessed. (Wired $)
+ Google says it’s unwilling to pitch it to fund network costs in Europe. (Reuters)

9 Why neuroscience is making a comeback
Some experts are convinced that making neurology and psychiatry departments work closer together is long overdue. (Economist $)

10 How plant-based meat fell out of fashion 🍔
Evangelists are convinced the nascent industry is merely experiencing teething problems. (The Guardian)
+ Your first lab-grown burger is coming soon—and it’ll be “blended”. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“There’s definitely the boys’ club that still exists.”

—Taryn Langer, founder of public relations firm Moxie Communications Group, tells the New York Times about her frustrations at the sexist state of the tech industry.

The big story

The quest to learn if our brain’s mutations affect mental health

August 2021

Scientists have struggled in their search for specific genes behind most brain disorders, including autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike problems with some other parts of our body, the vast majority of brain disorder presentations are not linked to an identifiable gene.

But a University of California, San Diego study published in 2001 suggested a different path. What if it wasn’t a single faulty gene—or even a series of genes—that always caused cognitive issues? What if it could be the genetic differences between cells? 

The explanation had seemed far-fetched, but more researchers have begun to take it seriously. Scientists already knew that the 85 billion to 100 billion neurons in your brain work to some extent in concert—but what they want to know is whether there is a risk when some of those cells might be singing a different genetic tune. Read the full story.

—Roxanne Khamsi

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Some gadgets are definitely more useful than others.
+ Calling all cat lovers! This potted history of mischievous felines in French painter Alexandre-François Desportes’ work is heartwarming stuff (thanks Melissa!)
+ A useful guide to working out what you really want from life
+ A Ukrainian startup is reportedly planning to use AI to clone the iconic voice of James Earl Jones, aka Darth Vader. 
+ The rumors are true—butter really is having a moment.



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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles


Jay Gierak at Ghost, which is based in Mountain View, California, is impressed by Wayve’s demonstrations and agrees with the company’s overall viewpoint. “The robotics approach is not the right way to do this,” says Gierak.

But he’s not sold on Wayve’s total commitment to deep learning. Instead of a single large model, Ghost trains many hundreds of smaller models, each with a specialism. It then hand codes simple rules that tell the self-driving system which models to use in which situations. (Ghost’s approach is similar to that taken by another AV2.0 firm, Autobrains, based in Israel. But Autobrains uses yet another layer of neural networks to learn the rules.)

According to Volkmar Uhlig, Ghost’s co-founder and CTO, splitting the AI into many smaller pieces, each with specific functions, makes it easier to establish that an autonomous vehicle is safe. “At some point, something will happen,” he says. “And a judge will ask you to point to the code that says: ‘If there’s a person in front of you, you have to brake.’ That piece of code needs to exist.” The code can still be learned, but in a large model like Wayve’s it would be hard to find, says Uhlig.

Still, the two companies are chasing complementary goals: Ghost wants to make consumer vehicles that can drive themselves on freeways; Wayve wants to be the first company to put driverless cars in 100 cities. Wayve is now working with UK grocery giants Asda and Ocado, collecting data from their urban delivery vehicles.

Yet, by many measures, both firms are far behind the market leaders. Cruise and Waymo have racked up hundreds of hours of driving without a human in their cars and already offer robotaxi services to the public in a small number of locations.

“I don’t want to diminish the scale of the challenge ahead of us,” says Hawke. “The AV industry teaches you humility.”

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Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

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Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram


Just minutes after Putin announced conscription, the administrators of the anti-Kremlin Rospartizan group announced its own “mobilization,” gearing up its supporters to bomb military enlistment officers and the Ministry of Defense with Molotov cocktails. “Ordinary Russians are invited to die for nothing in a foreign land,” they wrote. “Agitate, incite, spread the truth, but do not be the ones who legitimize the Russian government.”

The Rospartizan Telegram group—which has more than 28,000 subscribers—has posted photos and videos purporting to show early action against the military mobilization, including burned-out offices and broken windows at local government buildings. 

Other Telegram channels are offering citizens opportunities for less direct, though far more self-interested, action—namely, how to flee the country even as the government has instituted a nationwide ban on selling plane tickets to men aged 18 to 65. Groups advising Russians on how to escape into neighboring countries sprung up almost as soon as Putin finished talking, and some groups already on the platform adjusted their message. 

One group, which offers advice and tips on how to cross from Russia to Georgia, is rapidly closing in on 100,000 members. The group dates back to at least November 2020, according to previously pinned messages; since then, it has offered information for potential travelers about how to book spots on minibuses crossing the border and how to travel with pets. 

After Putin’s declaration, the channel was co-opted by young men giving supposed firsthand accounts of crossing the border this week. Users are sharing their age, when and where they crossed the border, and what resistance they encountered from border guards, if any. 

For those who haven’t decided to escape Russia, there are still other messages about how to duck army call-ups. Another channel, set up shortly after Putin’s conscription drive, crowdsources information about where police and other authorities in Moscow are signing up men of military age. It gained 52,000 subscribers in just two days, and they are keeping track of photos, videos, and maps showing where people are being handed conscription orders. The group is one of many: another Moscow-based Telegram channel doing the same thing has more than 115,000 subscribers. Half that audience joined in 18 hours overnight on September 22. 

“You will not see many calls or advice on established media on how to avoid mobilization,” says Golovchenko. “You will see this on Telegram.”

The Kremlin is trying hard to gain supremacy on Telegram because of its current position as a rich seam of subterfuge for those opposed to Putin and his regime, Golovchenko adds. “What is at stake is the extent to which Telegram can amplify the idea that war is now part of Russia’s everyday life,” he says. “If Russians begin to realize their neighbors and friends and fathers are being killed en masse, that will be crucial.”

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