Ginkgo Bioworks has raised $70 million in new funding to build out a large-scale COVID-19 testing facility in its Seaport labs, which it hopes will help meet the growing demand for testing as businesses and schools reopen.
The Boston synthetic biology company announced on Thursday its plans to use its automation capabilities — and DNA-sequencing technology from a new investor, Illumina — to enable widespread testing for COVID-19. The tests would determine whether individuals have the coronavirus.
At full capacity and using Illumina’s equipment, Ginkgo expects to run about half a million tests a day, chief executive Jason Kelly said in an interview.
“That one washing machine-size sequencer can do between 50,000 and 100,000 samples in a day — if you can get [the samples] into the device, and that is where it gets tricky,” he said. “You need a lot of automation, which is Ginkgo’s strength.”
The testing will be saliva-based, ideally yielding results in about 48 hours. The facility, in the company’s roughly 120,000-square-foot Seaport labs, would be mostly automated, using software-directed robots, Kelly said.
Ginkgo hopes to receive Food and Drug Administration approval for the tests this summer so that it can help meet the needs of universities and businesses in the fall. Kelly said diagnostic testing for COVID-19 will help employers and colleges isolate workers and students and minimize future outbreaks, which he said are inevitable.
“People are going to show up to work with COVID-19, and if they infect their co-workers, there is going to be an outbreak,” he said. “If we don’t build this infrastructure, I’m worried we are going to have to shut the whole place down again in the fall . . . The cost of that, socially and economically, is brutal.”
He said Ginkgo has been speaking with several large employers and universities in the state about purchasing tests, which right now could cost around $100 each. Kelly said he hopes to lower the price as testing scales up.
An effort by companies to pursue COVID-19 testing is the only way Kelly thinks the state can ramp up its testing capacity. Governor Charlie Baker has said that he wants Massachusetts to administer 75,000 tests daily by December.
“We think Massachusetts should be up from the roughly 10,000 tests we do today to something more like 100,000, but to do that you need new technologies," Kelly said. “The private sector can try to keep workplaces safe and free of outbreak, and then the state can focus on schools, vulnerable communities, and the homeless population."
Ginkgo is known for its work in “programming” cells, essentially using DNA much like code for a computer. The 11-year-old company employs about 350 workers and is valued by investors at over $4 billion. It has raised more than $700 million in venture capital, making it one of the most valuable private companies in Boston.
The new funding comes from San Diego-based Illumina, which is supplying the sequencing technology, and previous Ginkgo investors General Atlantic and Viking Global Investors.