The Inside Story Of How SoftBank-Backed Zymergen Imploded Four Months After Its $3 Billion IPO

www.forbes.com
7 min read
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Zymergen raised $500 million when it went public in April, on top of more than $1 billion in venture funding. By August, its CEO was out and the synthetic biology company wouldn't say when it might have commercial revenue. Here's what went wrong.
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O n a Thursday morning in April, the 200-foot-tall LED panel at One Times Square displayed a bold slogan: "We Make Tomorrow." The company behind the ad was Zymergen, a California synthetic biology company that had just gone public with a market capitalization of $3 billion. Its three founders — Josh Hoffman, Zach Serber and Jed Dean — posed in front of the screen, smiling beneath their pandemic masks emblazoned with the yellow Zymergen logo.

The startup had attracted more than $1 billion in venture capital from the likes of SoftBank and Baillie Gifford, selling investors on its moonshot vision: crafting products normally made of petrochemicals, from optic film for smartphone screens to mosquito repellant, in a way that's better for the environment. By "partnering with Nature," according to the company prospectus, Zymergen would engineer microbes that could be fermented to make these products, as yeast is fermented to create bread or beer. For years, synthetic biology companies had been toiling away at the edges of science, promising that the ability to program cells would change the world as dramatically as computer engineering has. Zymergen's April IPO — along with Ginkgo Bioworks' larger offering five months later — marked a watershed moment for the nascent field.

Just four months later, Zymergen made a stunning announcement. It reported that it would bring in zero dollars in product revenue for 2021 and said it expected "product revenue to be immaterial" for 2022 as well. In its S-1 offering document, the company had said that it was in process of qualifying its first product, an optic film for foldable LED screens, with multiple customers and expected revenue in the second half of 2021. It also claimed it had 10 other products in the pipeline with the next one expected to launch in 2022. In its August statement, however, Zymergen admitted that the optic film had "technical issues" and its rollout was delayed. Hoffman, the company's…
Amy Feldman
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