On May 7, Dr. Zach Serber, co-founder and CSO of the San Francisco start-up Zymergen gave a ‘Talk at the Square’ about unlocking the power of biology. The company was founded in 2013 and works with integrating automation, machine learning and genomics to rapidly accelerate the pace of scientific advancement. In just six years they have gone from being a small-team start-up to raising 575M dollars and employing more than 700 people.
We talked to Dr. Zach Serber about the start-up journey and the key elements in their success.
How were you inspired to combine robotics and machine learning with biology?
I am a physicist by training and in my first non-academic job I worked in the bio-fuel industry alongside expert biologists. It pained me to see these smart colleagues spend all day pipetting. In addition to this, it took a long time to test human hypotheses and progress was slow, expensive and unreliable, so something had to change. In Zymergen, we have combined robotics for manual labor with machine learning to generate and test hypotheses that are beyond human imagination.
What have been the key elements in Zymergen’s success?
Customer intimacy is an important one. Another is spending a lot of time developing a business plan. To many scientists it may seem like building a business plan should be an afternoon activity, but it is actually both challenging and very important. You need to ask yourself questions like how do we prove that we can grow our market, and how do we prove that someone will pay for our product?
What did the days at the office look like when you were still just a few employees back in 2013?
The days were extremely unstructured, very long and hectic. Unlike many technical founders, I spent the majority of the first year on the road talking to potential customers because it is very important to understand the market to maximize the time spent in the lab creating solutions. I knew this because I had been in the industry and seen firsthand what happens when start-ups believe that they can develop a perfect solution in the lab that companies will just adapt.
What do your days look like today?
They are still hectic but much more structured. Entrepreneurs typically thrive with change but when you build a company you actually have to create a system that is stable which is counter to those start-up instincts. We are more than 700 people in Zymergen today and as a founder, you have to delegate and put trust in business processes because you can’t be part of everything.
Another challenge is communication as information no longer spreads without effort with when you are several hundred people. We have had to put in explicit mechanisms to make sure everyone knows what they need to know.
What would you pass on to early-stage companies looking to raise their first round of funding?
It is very critical for an investor to know which steps the company will take to de-risk the project. What early-stage companies often fail to do is explain exactly what they will do with the money they are asking for. Another piece of advice is to stay disciplined and find comfort in knowing what you will not do. It makes it easier to not be led astray.