The Biden administration on Monday appointed Ginkgo Bioworks executive Renee Wegrzyn as the first director of a new federal agency focused on biomedical and health research and innovation, at an event in Boston.
President Biden launched the agency, called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, in March with $1 billion in initial funding. Since then, business and political leaders, including a group in Massachusetts, have been lobbying to have ARPA-H’s headquarters sited here.
Wegrzyn, 45, is vice president for business development at Boston’s Ginkgo, a synthetic biology firm that performs cell engineering services for other companies. She joined Biden at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum as he spoke on the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s “Moonshot speech,” which laid out a goal to send astronauts to the moon and back.
Biden is relaunching his own kind of moonshot initiative, which aims to cut the cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years.
In a statement, Wegrzyn said she knows problems related to health and disease “can seem insurmountable.” But Wegrzyn said she is confident the new federal agency will be able to harness the “expertise and energy” of the US biomedical and biotech sector to solve “the toughest health challenges.”
“ARPA-H will create the transformative and collaborative space that is required to support the next generation of moonshots for health,” she said.
Wegrzyn said the agency will not only focus on diseases like cancer, but also “systemic barriers,” such as supply chain gaps and ensuring equitable access to breakthrough technologies and medicine.
It’s unclear whether Wegrzyn’s appointment is a positive sign for those who want to lure the ARPA-H headquarters to Massachusetts. Though Wegrzyn works for Ginkgo, which is based in the Seaport District, she is based in Washington, D.C.
Before joining Ginkgo in August 2020, Wegrzyn worked as a program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Biden said Wegrzyn will bring the “legendary DARPA attitude and culture” to the new agency.
In an interview with The Boston Globe in March, Wegrzyn said most of her work at for the government was related to biosecurity, or ways in which the country could not only defend itself against biological threats, like COVID-19, but safely deploy “engineered biology in the world.”
That’s how she became familiar with Ginkgo Bioworks ― Wegrzyn said the firm often sent representatives, sometimes including chief executive Jason Kelly, to Washington to talk about biosecurity.
The last project she worked on before her defense agency term ended involved launching a “bio-surveillance” program.
“We’re throwing so much information away every time we collect a sample” she said. “We’re looking for one thing because you think you have the flu . . . we should be looking for a thousand different things.”
Wgrzyn joined Ginkgo in August 2020 and continued this work as the head of innovation for the company’s biosecurity arm, Concentric by Ginkgo. Though originally built during the pandemic to perform COVID-19 testing in K-12 schools, Concentric hopes to apply to expand the program to other diseases in the future.
“[Ginkgo] built the infrastructure we wished we had two years ago,” she said. “We don’t want to be caught flat footed.”
Matt McKnight, general manager for biosecurity at Ginkgo, said in a statement Wegrzyn “stands out as a thoughtful, innovative, and practical leader.”
“Renee uniquely understands what is needed in the next era of invention,” he said. “ARPA-H will benefit tremendously from being shaped by her vision.”