Ginkgo Bioworks has hosted a Boston conference dedicated to synthetic biology twice before, but the 2021 edition of the company’s “Ferment” event last week was a real coming-out party.
Once a mysterious MIT spinout, Ginkgo has definitely arrived. The company — which is attempting to program DNA like software in drug design, agriculture, and other areas — raised $1.6 billion when it merged with a blank check company to go public in September. That kind of money can fuel a lot of innovation, attract big-name partners, buy crucial time, and allow for a pretty stunning conference. I had to pull myself away from the massive and gorgeous paper floral sculptures decorating the hall to pay attention to the speakers. (The flowers were designed by The Gathery and fabricated by Wizard Studios and Bednark Studio in Brooklyn, if you need your own bouquet.)
First up was CEO and cofounder Jason Kelly, who highlighted a big moment he wanted to mark. “I have to say it was also pretty cool to put a 30-foot T-Rex on the outside of the New York Stock Exchange,” the dinosaur-loving executive said to wild applause.
He also tried to temper expectations a bit and cut back one of the company’s earliest slogans, that it would program cells just like a computer.
“We’ve long called biology a manufacturing technology but that’s not exactly right,” Kelly said. “Biology’s not a technology. Technologies are invented by humans. ... Unlike a computer, a cell is not predictable. ... We don’t understand these systems like we understand human-engineered systems.”
The first Ferment, in 2018, was held in a side ballroom at the Hynes Convention Center. In 2019, it was moved up to The Loft, the fifth-floor gathering space at the Innovation and Design Building in Seaport. This year, Ginkgo took over the entire floor of the SoWa Power Station, a cavernous brick-enclosed venue on Harrison Avenue that can hold more than 1,000 people.
It wasn’t quite “Silicon Valley,” but the bigger venue allowed for an audience of hundreds of attendees who ranged from scientists and doctors to venture capitalists and bankers to entrepreneurs and boosters. They even admitted a Globe reporter (albeit after I passed an on-site COVID rapid test).
The speaker list also got pumped up, with Vertex CEO Reshma Kewalramani; famed biotech scientist David Chang, the CEO of Allogene Therapeutics; and investor-of-the-moment Cathie Wood (her Ark Innovation ETF owns $274 million of Ginkgo stock as of Nov. 1). I couldn’t stay for lunch but the menu included meatless meatballs from Motif Foodworks, a Ginkgo spinoff using synthetic biotechnology to engineer tasty plant-based foods.
One morning session featured Kewalramani, who just joined Ginkgo’s board, talking to Ginkgo cofounder and president Reshma Shetty. The pair said they met a few years ago at a dinner hosted by Globe CEO Linda Henry. Neither had ever met someone else named Reshma at a business meeting.
“I was like, wait, what, this has never happened to me in my entire life,” Shetty recalled. She later jokingly asked her CEO: “Is this your life all the time, you just meet CEOs of other biotech companies named Jason?”
Ginkgo has faced some criticism for hyping its technology, but Kewalramani had a sound bite at the ready.
“When you are trying to do something innovative... what it means is that no one has done it before,” she said. “If it sounds unlikely, if it sounds crazy, if it sounds undoable, OK, but it’s only because it hasn’t been done before.”
And even if the critics have a point, Ginkgo has a long runway to prove them wrong — a runway at least $1.6 billion long.