South by Yeast: Ginkgo acquires a venture that Sputtered but Never Failed to Intrigue

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It was styled as a biofuels and biochemical producer, founded back in the heady days of the Recovery Act in February 2009, focused on developing high value oils and animal feeds by fermentation of low cost substrates. The business, as former CEO Colin South once described it, was “focused on integration of process enabling technologies, value add oils and high protein animal feed by-products.” It raised a trackable $14.7M between May 2009 and October 2013.

It was Novogy, which sputtered a bit in the actual production of oils and feeds, but never failed to intrigue in the platform it developed to do same. Novogy was ultimately acquired by Total in August 2014 for an undisclosed price. Now Ginkgo BioWorks has acquired it, for an undisclosed price.

When did Ginkgo actually acquire Novogy?

We think it might have been some 60 days ago. Worth noting that this valuable piece of IP was assigned to Ginkgo back on late October, along with at least 11 other patent apps.

More on the value of that bit, a little later.

The Novogy journey

Looking back at 2014, most CEOs would consider a strategic sale to a petrochemical major as “job well done”, and depending on the price they received, investors would have agreed. Given that Colin South went on to be CEO of Proterro and EnEvolv before migrating to Ginkgo’s frenemy, Zymergen, about a year ago — that’s suggestive that the price wasn’t too bad at all.

Novogy was one of the most intriguing and stealthy companies we ever saw. In some ways, like its founding CEO Colin South, whose favorite song would just have to be “Our Lips Are Sealed” by the Go-Gos. Investors love companies that everyone knows about which own IP that no one knows about — it’s a difficult needle to thread. You can hide some of the company all of the time, or all of the company some of the time, but you can’t hide all of the company all of the time.

So, what can we say about Novogy? It always struck us as in the class of companies that included LS9 or Allylix. All three were potentially monster technologies that became absorbed through acquisition — LS9 disappeared into Renewable Energy Group and thence became part of Genomatica. Allylix disappeared into Evolva. We miss them both.

LS9 worked in e.coli bacteria but was focused on producing oils. Allylix had this amazing ability in strain engineering relating to yeast. So, Novogy was not unrelated in terms of technology. Lipids and yeast are at the heart of it. Novogy had developed the ability to produce a class of oleaginous yeasts — a source for sustainable fats and oils. They have been Wizards of Yeast.

And what might Ginkgo be doing with the assets, IP portfolio, codebase and technical team — which is to say, the tangible assets and not the commercial ones? Ginkgo will be “leveraging those to accelerate and scale development of a range of bio-based commodities, fine chemicals and materials, as part of a push towards the creation of more environmentally-friendly biofuels.”

Let’s look into that just a bit. And meanwhile, can I introduce you to a good but very small friend of mine, Yarrowia lipolytica, named for its fondness for eating lipids, although it’s become more recently famous for producing them.

What happens with Y. lipolytica?

When you’ve taken the genome for a spin, bottom line, researchers have come up with ways to make it really, really fat. This is a porker that shouts “supersize me!” at genetic engineers. 

When you feed carboxylic acids to them, presto, Mikey likes it, so says this recent research paper. 

In this case, it produces really interesting lipids. Not your Dad’s lipo fat — this is the high-end stuff. Fat gold, if you will. And engineers have dialed in an ability to produce different kinds of oils — so, it’s a very, very small but flexible fat factory.

What would you make in the short term? 

Probably the higher-value oils such as omega 3s like eicosapentaenoic acid. Although we wouldn’t rule out pharma options. You may not know of a field called lipid-based therapy and people from outside the space are sometimes scratching their head about the idea of feeding fats to people as a therapeutic. More on that here. 

But, back to Omega-3s. Here’s a paper from Dark Lords of What’s Left of DuPont, titled “Sustainable source of omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid from metabolically engineered Yarrowia lipolytica: from fundamental research to commercial production” for you to chew on. 

Training up an organism to produce omega-3s and maybe throw in a process from Genomatica where it works at scale and at a high rate, titer and yield, now you have something.

Why did Total bail out?

Well, did Total bail or did Ginkgo come a-courtin’. No one’s talking yet, though we will continue to entertain those with knowledge of the details in the Digest’s medieval Chamber of Secrets and see what we can share.

Why would Total sell? Possibly, because they would like a technology that makes something more of a TOTAL-scale molecule in the near future. 

In recent years, there’s been work on lubricants using Novogy’s technology. More on that here. Oleate-enriched triacylglycerides are well-suited for lubricant applications that require high oxidative stability.

But we wonder how fast the progress has been on Totalian targets, given that the petrochemical industry has been crushed by COVID. In April, Novogy’s Joe Shaw and Annapurna Kamineni reported:

Oleaginous yeasts natively produce surplus triacylglycerol lipid and can be engineered for higher yield and productivity. Most enzymatic steps of triacylglycerol production are characterized, but key parts of the pathway remain unknown. This introduces uncertainty to metabolic engineering strategy and the upper limit of achievable lipid yield.

Not to mention, Genomatica’s a citizen of Planet Ginkgo, and it’s nice to have a world-class organism but better to have a world-class process.

The Core Technology

For now, you might enjoy reading up on Novogy’s 2015 patent for Oleic acid production in yeast.

Reaction from the stakeholders

Everyone is happy and proud.

“At the core of Novogy’s technology is a deep understanding of how to engineer biology to build better products,” said Vasiliki Tsakraklides, a Program Director who recently joined Ginkgo from Novogy. “This transaction with Ginkgo will allow the talent and expertise Novogy has developed to continue driving bioprocesses that deliver benefits on a global scale.”

“We are thrilled to bring Novogy’s expertise and impressive codebase into the Ginkgo fold,” said Patrick Boyle, Ginkgo’s Head of Codebase. “The breadth of Ginkgo’s customer base and platform capabilities combined with Novogy’s significant progress to-date means that we can put these assets to work right away. We have already identified new products and applications with this technology, and we look forward to finding more ways to not only utilize this platform but continue to make improvements to expand its use in a wide range of industries.”



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