Unilever Chairman Joins Board of Bioengineering Unicorn Ginkgo

(Bloomberg) -- Unilever NV Chairman Marijn Dekkers will join the board of Ginkgo Bioworks Inc. as chairman, a major vote of confidence in the biological engineering startup’s effort to do everything from improving agricultural yields to synthesizing perfume ingredients.

Dekkers, 61, isn’t leaving his role with Unilever. He has been chairman of the giant consumer company since 2016.

Ginkgo designs customized microbes that act as tiny biological factories that can produce fragrances, fertilizers and, soon, cannabinoid compounds. Among the Boston-based startup’s most well-known products is a rose-scented oil, which is grown from engineered yeast instead of a flower.

“What Ginkgo is doing is very unique,” Dekkers, who is a research chemist by training, said in a telephone interview. “I am scientifically very interested in it, but also it can be applied to so many different markets and industries and really have a meaningful impact.”

Ginkgo was co-founded in 2009 by Tom Knight, a key figure in the field of synthetic biology, and a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad students including current Chief Executive Officer Jason Kelly. According to PitchBook, the company has a $1.4 billion private valuation after a $275 million fundraising round in 2017 from investors including Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates.

Kelly said Dekkers will lend the company expertise from many industries. Dekkers was previously CEO of Bayer AG and Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., and founded Novalis LifeSciences, a boutique investment and advisory firm.

“It totally levels us up,” said Kelly. “I mean, the other board he’s chair of is Unilever.”

London-based Unilever has a market value of about $165 billion, and sells a vast array of consumer goods including Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Q-tips and Dove soap.

Last year, Ginkgo for the first time began accepting orders for engineered mammalian cells after the acquisition of a DNA synthesis company. In February, it spun out Motif Ingredients, which makes bioengineered proteins as alternatives to animal-based products.

Dekkers said he will work from Ginkgo’s headquarters in Boston once a week.

“There are so few current applications for synthetic biology, and that is going to change rapidly,” he said.

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