SAN FRANCISCO — Over its three-year life, Zymergen has focused on helping genetically engineer tiny microbes, while using advanced computing to help better automate the process.
Now the start-up has attracted a big round of financing to help expand its work.
Zymergen said late Monday that it had raised $130 million in its latest round, led by the Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank. The company also added two high-profile directors: Steven Chu, the former energy secretary, and Deep Nishar, a senior executive at SoftBank.
Others in the round include the returning investors Data Collective, True Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Innovation Endeavors, Obvious Ventures and Two Sigma Ventures. New investors include Iconiq Capital, Prelude Ventures and Tao Capital Partners.
From the beginning, Zymergen has used robotics and machine learning to better manipulate microbes used in processes like industrial fermentation, making customers’ operations more efficient. But the company’s chief executive, Joshua Hoffman, says its technology will ultimately help in a more important task: producing new materials unconstrained by the limits of traditional petroleum-based manufacturing.
Its main components include robotics, which helps eliminate human error, and machine learning, which is meant to help find more advanced patterns that could lead to scientific breakthroughs.
“The human ability to understand and predict what’s happening is really limited,” he said in a telephone interview. Zymergen’s approach, he said, amplifies the work of industrial scientists and frees them to work outside traditional approaches.
To illustrate, he pointed to the differences between Yahoo in its early days, which relied on human curators to organize web content, and Google, which from the start drew on complicated algorithms to make searching more powerful.
Mr. Hoffman described the new financing, despite its technically being a “series B” round, as one equivalent to a later-stage growth round at a more mature company. Zymergen, based in Emeryville, Calif., employs just under 200 people. He declined to discuss the company’s financial performance, other than to say that it was producing revenue and was on a path to profitability.
Such is the promise of Zymergen that in about four months it drew support from the likes of SoftBank — better known for its telecommunications network in Japan and its control of Sprint in the United States — and Dr. Chu, who shared a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997.
“We are investing in Zymergen because they are a pre-eminent bioengineering company and the market leader,” Mr. Nishar of SoftBank said in a news release.
Dr. Chu, who was introduced to Zymergen via a former lieutenant from the Energy Department who also knew Mr. Hoffman, said the start-up’s offerings could help produce new materials beyond plastics, helping create more sustainable products.
“If you can really control an organism to produce something, your palette of materials is greatly enlarged,” he said in a telephone interview.
And, he added jokingly, the company was “applying machine learning to something other than selling you things.”