Ginkgo Bioworks CEO on scaling up Covid-19 testing: ‘If we try, we can win’

Health, Fitness & Food

Jason Kelly, Founder, Ginkgo Bioworks

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

As businesses and schools seek to reopen, most public health experts agree that Covid-19 testing is needed more than ever. 

The team behind Ginkgo Bioworks, a genetic engineering start-up, is going all in. 

Using equipment from Illumina, a maker of DNA sequencing machines, the company — which made CNBC’s 2020 Disruptor 50 list — is working on technology to run a half million tests per day, said Jason Kelly, Ginkgo’s co-founder and CEO. The technology, if approved by federal regulators, will be saliva-based, which in theory would make it easier for consumers to get tested than using the nasal swabs most tests employ today. 

“We didn’t initially have enough tests, but now we’ve ramped up to about 400,000 per day,” he said. “That’s enough for our clinical diagnostics needs. … However, we are now entering phase 2 of this thing.”

Ginkgo, a darling of the burgeoning synthetic biology sector, got its start in 2009 when a group of MIT scientists got together to develop biotechnology tools for industries including agriculture, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. In essence, it develops custom microorganisms that aim to replace technology with biology. Think of it as a way to program cells, a bit like you’d program computers.

“We program DNA and cells to make them do new things,” said Kelly, who describes the company as the largest designers of “printing DNA” in the world. 

The Boston-based company has raised close to $1 billion to date, as investors clamor to throw money into companies at the intersection of health care and technology. Kelly maintains that enthusiasm is warranted. The cost of sequencing DNA data is coming down faster than the cost of processing data on computers, outpacing Moore’s law.

As Kelly puts it, “the chips aren’t getting that much faster,” but in biology things are “exponentially improving.” 

More testing through next-generation sequencing

Right now Kelly believes Ginkgo can best apply its technology to help ramp up coronavirus testing in the U.S.

As the CEO explained, the initial crop of tests were primarily used to determine if people experiencing Covid-19 symptoms did, in fact, have the virus. But now, as people are going back to their lives, there will be an increasing need for regular testing of people who don’t have symptoms.

For instance, Amazon plans to test its fulfillment center workers every two weeks, as well as monitor outbreaks in the community. 

That means the country is going to need a lot more coronavirus tests.

Ginkgo started surveying the various techniques to scale up testing back in the spring, including antigen (a technology that looks for viral surface proteins), CRISPR-based (a genome editing technique) and next-generation sequencing approaches. Companies have only recently been granted emergency-use authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for these types of tests. All of them, if ramped up, could theoretically augment the polymerase chain reaction tests that are currently the gold standard for Covid-19.

Ginkgo has decided to focus on next-generation sequencing with Illumina, which has already been granted an emergency-use approval for its Covid-19 test that is designed to sequence the full genome of the virus.

“Beyond diagnostic testing, Illumina and a number of our customers are exploring NGS-based workflows to enable high-volume screening to support a return to work and school,” Illumina CEO Francis deSouza said in a statement.

In May Ginkgo announced it had raised another $70 million, including from Illumina, to fund its expansion in the diagnostics field. It is also using the money to build out its own testing facility in its highly automated Boston Seaport labs. 

More from Disruptor 50:
Moderna CEO sees success with Covid-19 vaccine
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CLEAR poised to lead in biometric screening for Covid

Kelly can’t predict exactly when the company will be rolling out its tests, but it hopes to get FDA approval this summer. He said the company is already starting to work with businesses to help advise them as they determine how to safely get employees back to work. Many are concerned about a potential second shutdown if there’s another outbreak in their area. 

He believes that testing and contact tracing, where government officials track down and warn people who might have been exposed to Covid-19, are key to reopening the economy. 

“I’m also sensing that a lot of people don’t have a ton of hope,” Kelly said. “Now we have to really try. If we try, we can win.”

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