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SoftBank Plows $400 Million Into Synthetic Bio Startup Zymergen

(Bloomberg) -- Joshua Hoffman has done plenty of experimentation at Zymergen Inc., the robot-powered microbe factory he founded and leads.

By building an army of AI-powered robots to genetically engineer more efficient microbes -– the biological building blocks used to create all material –- Zymergen revamped existing agricultural and industrial products sold by Fortune 500 companies and helped them increase profits.

But it’s the work it has done independently that compelled return investor SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund to lead a $400 million round in the five-year-old startup based in Emeryville, California. New backers include Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Hanwha Asset Management.

“They are coming up with brand new materials,” said SoftBank Senior Managing Partner and Zymergen board member Deep Nishar. He pointed to products such as catnip-inspired insect repellent and sunscreen that doesn’t harm coral reefs developed by the startup that already have been tested on a limited basis on humans.

Nishar, who used the insect repellent last summer during a family vacation to the Amazon rain forest, said Zymergen has a “huge” opportunity that transcends sectors. While SoftBank’s initial investing thesis included Zymergen’s ability to create novel materials, he expected it to happen in 2021 or so, not nearly so quickly.

“We didn’t expect them to achieve this so quickly,” he said.

Like Ginkgo Bioworks, Bolt Threads and Impossible Foods, Zymergen is part of a synthetic biology boom thanks to overlapping advances in biology and computer science. But scientific breakthroughs come with extra responsibilities, and Hoffman said he’s conscious of that.

“We won’t do weapons and we’d never do bio-weapons,” he said, adding that Zymergen is also steering clear of re-engineering microbes used to make opioids and other drugs.

Hoffman declined to discuss revenue or valuation and said confidentiality agreements prevent him from naming customers other than the U.S. Department of Defense, which commissioned radar resistant paint from the startup several years ago.

The recent round, which brings Zymergen’s total funding to $535 million, will allow it to double its capacity to serve global clients, invest in engineering novel materials and begin commercializing products it has invented. Plans also call for expanding the workforce from the current 600 employees.

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