Detroit — For the past four years, Zymergen Inc. has been exploring technology for making specialty polymers using genetically engineered microbes.
Now the company is preparing for its first products to go commercial. Richard Pieters, president of Zymergen's products business, said customers are sampling materials now. He expects to announce commercial applications in the next half year or so.
Zymergen isn't looking for run-of-the-mill applications. It's not about replacing commodity plastics or metals.
"For example, there are companies trying to make scratch-resistant cell phone screens that are also flexible. You need a new polymer to do that," Pieters said.
"There are thousands of opportunities," he said. "We have quite a pipeline of products in development."
Without getting specific, he mentioned applications in electric vehicles, consumer electronics and military products.
Pieters joined Zymergen in 2016. He previously was the Troy, Mich.-based president, Americas, for DSM Engineering Plastics. Prior to DSM, he worked at GE Plastics.
Zymergen's technology makes industrial chemicals from single-cell microbes. The basic science is fairly inexpensive — Pieters compares it to brewing beer. Yeast converts grain to alcohol at relatively low temperatures and pressures. It's not nearly as complex as a typical polymer plant.
But it's not as simple as using yeast to make plastics. Zymergen is using genetic engineering to reprogram the DNA of microbes, then tests them in the lab to see if they have the ability to create useful raw materials, like polymers, adhesives or coatings.
What makes Zymergen unique is that its experiments are automated. This gives the company the ability to test thousands of trials a week, and to focus on the combination of DNA changes that create the best end product.
Zymergen, which is based in Emeryville, Calif., employs about 400, roughly double what it had a year ago.
For some customers, the sustainability message is important — Zymergen allows them to make polymers from renewable materials instead of petrochemicals. But that's not a critical part of the company's message, Pieters said. He's more focused on creating unique polymers with properties that can't be matched by conventional plastics.
Zymergen also is looking for companies and applications that can benefit from its unique technology. As examples, he said Zymergen is talking to companies that make high-end films, and he is interested in firms that make innovative polymer coatings.