Some 400 employees of synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks traveled to New York City to celebrate the company’s start of trading today on the New York Stock Exchange. In late-morning, the Boston-based company’s shares peaked at $14.02, briefly making the company’s five founders—Jason Kelly, Reshma Shetty, Barry Canton, Austin Che and Tom Knight—billionaires based on their shareholdings, by Forbes calculations. By day’s end, with the stock at $12.15, all were slightly below the 10-figure mark, according to ownership detailed in the company’s regulatory filings.
“Is that right? We each have about 5% so that’s about right,” Kelly, the company’s CEO, told Forbes in a Zoom call from the floor of the stock exchange. “We’re a bunch of nerds….All that value is in Ginkgo, it’s not a billion dollars in cash in your pocket.”
Ginkgo was founded in 2008 by MIT Ph.D. classmates Kelly, Shetty, Canton and Che and their professor Knight. Shetty and Canton are married. Their vision was to create better tools for biology, allowing them to reinvent the way we make everything from fertilizers to industrial products.
Named after a dinosaur-era tree that’s a living fossil, Ginkgo has taken a dual approach: It receives revenue from its foundry, and it has created a portfolio of companies in diverse industries, including Joyn Bio, focused on agtech, and Motif Foodworks, in alternative proteins.
Revenue last year reached $77 million, the bulk of it from the foundry operations, according to regulatory filings. It reported a net loss of $127 million for the year. Revenue for the first half of 2021 reached $88 million, nearly three times the $31 million it brought in during the same period of 2020.
Kelly says that the company expects to hit breakeven by 2024 or 2025 based on foundry revenue, with the potential that breakeven could occur earlier based on the company’s joint ventures and partnerships that provide royalties and equity stakes. It also has a cash horde from the $17.5 billion SPAC deal through which it went public. “We’ve got another $1.6 billion in cash in the bank,” he says. “We can go build all this stuff, we’ll build bigger foundries, we’ll acquire technologies that are important to us. The next year at Ginkgo is going to be a lot of fun.”
The promise of synthetic biology is enormous, and today Ginkgo is just one of hundreds of companies that have been formed to take advantage of it. Proponents see it ushering in a new era of programming cells with as much ease as we program computers, changing the way we create just about everything, including therapeutics, food and industrial products. “Yes, there’s Ginkgo, but whether Ginkgo succeeds or fails, synthetic biology and programming cells is not going away,” Kelly says. “It’s a big deal.”
But Ginkgo’s high valuation of well over 100 times trailing 12-month revenue has also raised eyebrows. “It’s either the greatest short of all time or the next AWS,” says Pinnacle Associates’ Randy Baron, who is invested in synthetic biology company Amyris but not Gingko. And there have also been troubles in the industry: Earlier this summer, Zymergen imploded just four months after going public. It said then that it no longer expected product revenue for 2021, and announced that its CEO, Josh Hoffman, had stepped down effective immediately.
As for Ginkgo, today was all about celebrating as 400 people crowded into and outside the stock exchange, many bringing their families along on buses to celebrate. About 10% of Ginkgo (which now trades under the symbol ‘DNA’) is owned by Ginkgo’s roughly 600 employees, minting scores of new millionaires among the ranks of science and engineering nerds in Boston. “They [the NYSE] said it’s the most people they’ve had, even pre-Covid,” Kelly says. “We had a couple hundred in the balcony and a couple hundred outside. We had people who came in just to be outside.”
Ginkgo shares closed trading up more than 6%, at $12.15. In addition to the regular A shares, the founders also hold super-voting B shares, which have 10 votes for each share, allowing them to keep substantial say over the now-public company.
For more on Ginkgo Bioworks, see our 2019 magazine feature, “The Life Factory.”