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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

How do I know if egg freezing is for me?

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How do I know if egg freezing is for me?


The tool is currently being trialed in a group of research volunteers and is not yet widely available. But I’m hoping it represents a move toward more transparency and openness about the real costs and benefits of egg freezing. Yes, it is a remarkable technology that can help people become parents. But it might not be the best option for everyone.

Read more from Tech Review’s archive

Anna Louie Sussman had her eggs frozen in Italy and Spain because services in New York were too expensive. Luckily, there are specialized couriers ready to take frozen sex cells on international journeys, she wrote.

Michele Harrison was 41 when she froze 21 of her eggs. By the time she wanted to use them, two years later, only one was viable. Although she did have a baby, her case demonstrates that egg freezing is no guarantee of parenthood, wrote Bonnie Rochman.

What happens if someone dies with eggs in storage? Frozen eggs and sperm can still be used to create new life, but it’s tricky to work out who can make the decision, as I wrote in a previous edition of The Checkup.

Meanwhile, the race is on to create lab-made eggs and sperm. These cells, which might be made from a person’s blood or skin cells, could potentially solve a lot of fertility problems—should they ever prove safe, as I wrote in a feature for last year’s magazine issue on gender.

Researchers are also working on ways to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab, which could allow them to store and use their eggs without having to pause gender-affirming medical care or go through other potentially distressing procedures, as I wrote last year.

From around the web

The World Health Organization is set to decide whether covid still represents a “public health emergency of international concern.” It will probably decide to keep this status, because of the current outbreak in China. (STAT)  

Researchers want to study the brains, genes, and other biological features of incarcerated people to find ways to stop them from reoffending. Others warn that this approach is based on shoddy science and racist ideas. (Undark)

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A watermark for chatbots can expose text written by an AI

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs


For example, since OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT was launched in November, students have already started cheating by using it to write essays for them. News website CNET has used ChatGPT to write articles, only to have to issue corrections amid accusations of plagiarism. Building the watermarking approach into such systems before they’re released could help address such problems. 

In studies, these watermarks have already been used to identify AI-generated text with near certainty. Researchers at the University of Maryland, for example, were able to spot text created by Meta’s open-source language model, OPT-6.7B, using a detection algorithm they built. The work is described in a paper that’s yet to be peer-reviewed, and the code will be available for free around February 15. 

AI language models work by predicting and generating one word at a time. After each word, the watermarking algorithm randomly divides the language model’s vocabulary into words on a “greenlist” and a “redlist” and then prompts the model to choose words on the greenlist. 

The more greenlisted words in a passage, the more likely it is that the text was generated by a machine. Text written by a person tends to contain a more random mix of words. For example, for the word “beautiful,” the watermarking algorithm could classify the word “flower” as green and “orchid” as red. The AI model with the watermarking algorithm would be more likely to use the word “flower” than “orchid,” explains Tom Goldstein, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, who was involved in the research. 

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs


That’s why the team behind a new decision-making tool hope it will help to clear up some of the misconceptions around the procedure—and give would-be parents a much-needed insight into its real costs, benefits, and potential pitfalls. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

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

1 Elon Musk held a surprise meeting with US political leaders 
Allegedly in the interest of ensuring Twitter is “fair to both parties.” (Insider $)
+ Kanye West’s presidential campaign advisors have been booted off Twitter. (Rolling Stone $)
+ Twitter’s trust and safety head is Musk’s biggest champion. (Bloomberg $) 

2 We’re treating covid like flu now
Annual covid shots are the next logical step. (The Atlantic $)

3 The worst thing about Sam Bankman-Fried’s spell in jail? 
Being cut off from the internet. (Forbes $)
+ Most crypto criminals use just five exchanges. (Wired $)
+ Collapsed crypto firmFTX has objected to a new investigation request. (Reuters)

4 Israel’s tech sector is rising up against its government
Tech workers fear its hardline policies will harm startups. (FT $)

5 It’s possible to power the world solely using renewable energy
At least, according to Stanford academic Mark Jacobson. (The Guardian)
+ Tech bros love the environment these days. (Slate $)
+ How new versions of solar, wind, and batteries could help the grid. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Generative AI is wildly expensive to run 
And that’s why promising startups like OpenAI need to hitch their wagons to the likes of Microsoft. (Bloomberg $)
+ How Microsoft benefits from the ChatGPT hype. (Vox)
+ BuzzFeed is planning to make quizzes supercharged by OpenAI. (WSJ $) 
+ Generative AI is changing everything. But what’s left when the hype is gone? (MIT Technology Review)

7 It’s hard not to blame self-driving cars for accidents
Even when it’s not technically their fault. (WSJ $)

8 What it’s like to swap Google for TikTok
It’s great for food suggestions and hacks, but hopeless for anything work-related. (Wired $)
+ The platform really wants to stay operational in the US. (Vox)
+ TikTok is mired in an eyelash controversy. (Rolling Stone $)

9 CRISPR gene editing kits are available to buy online
But there’s no guarantee these experiments will actually work. (Motherboard)
+ Next up for CRISPR: Gene editing for the masses? (MIT Technology Review)

10 Tech workers are livestreaming their layoffs
It’s a candid window into how these notoriously secretive companies treat their staff. (The Information $)

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