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E. coli for Energy: Ginkgo BioWorks and the Entrepreneurial Mentorship Program

March 2, 2011 - 3:56pm

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Researchers at Ginko BioWorks seek to turn carbon dioxide into a liquid fuel.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear “E. coli” I think of undercooked chicken. Researchers at Ginkgo BioWorks, on the other hand, are developing the vehicle fuels of the future from E. coli bacteria. The young company, founded by five PhDs from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is on a mission to make biology easier to engineer.

Dr. Jason Kelly, one of five founding “DNA Hackers,” sees E. coli from a different perspective. We spoke with Dr. Kelly to find out more about what it means to be a DNA Hacker at Ginkgo BioWorks. 

“We engineer organisms,” he said. “We aren't trying to study biology, we are trying to build it. Most of us came from an engineering background and were introduced to biology later on. What we’re doing at Ginkgo is constructing and redesigning the living world.”

Dr. Kelly and his colleagues are using synthetic biology technologies to design and build new organisms. Take for example the E. coli mentioned earlier. Last year, Ginkgo, along with collaborators from UC Berkeley and the University of Washington, was selected for a $6.7 million ARPA-E grant from the Department of Energy to re-engineer the bacteria E. coli to turn carbon dioxide into liquid transportation fuels (like gasoline) using energy from electricity. The researchers at Ginkgo develop genes in the laboratory, and then make them work inside a living cell -- all to make useful products that would not otherwise be possible.

Ginkgo BioWorks is also taking part in the “Entrepreneurial Mentor Corps,” a one-year pilot program to connect clean energy startups with mentors who can help support these companies through early-stage challenges and increase their chance for success. The program is a partnership of the Department of Energy and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and targets clean energy small businesses who have previously received financial assistance from the Department through the Recovery Act. 

Ginkgo’s products expand past the energy industry, and are also sought by pharmaceutical and chemical production companies looking for safer and more cost-effective ways to make their products. Much like any startup venture, the Ginkgo team takes necessary risks to ensure their innovative projects remain at the top of the biotechnology game, and have already had many successes since starting out three years ago. To ensure their continued success, Dr. Kelly and the rest of the Ginkgo team hope to use the Entrepreneurial Mentor Corps pilot program to get advice from other industry experts who have weathered the challenges many startups face. Dr. Kelly says the Ginkgo team is excited to be a part of the pilot program, and hopes to have a mentee organization within the next month.

For more information about the Entrepreneurial Mentor Corps, visit the earlier blog post.

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