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Is Ginkgo’s synthetic-biology story worth $15 billion?

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photograph of the founders of Ginkgo Bioworks


“Times must be good when a young biotech company can afford to hire people to write unrelated magazine-style articles,” snarked Dirk Haussecker, a savvy biotech stock picker who is active on Twitter.

Kelly says the magazine was inspired by Think, a periodical printed by IBM starting in the 1930s. “Why did they do that? Well, no one knew what the heck a computer was,” says Kelly, who sees Ginkgo playing a similar role as an evangelist for the possibilities of genetic engineering.

During a podcast, journalists with Stat News compared Ginkgo to a “meme stock,” or “stonk,” positioned to appeal to an investing public chasing trends without regard for business fundamentals. When the SPAC deal is finalized—sometime in September—the company is going to trade under the stock symbol “DNA,” once owned by Genentech, an early hero of the biotech scene. “Ginkgo Bioworks does not deserve to use the DNA ticker,” said Stat stock reporter Adam Feuerstein.

SPACs are a Wall Street trend that offers an IPO path with a little less than the usual scrutiny of a company’s financial outlook. Will Gornall, a business school professor at the University of British Columbia, believes that they democratize investor access to hot sectors but can also overestimate companies’ value. Some deals, like the one that took Richard Branson’s space company Virgin Galactic Holdings public, have done well, but five electric-car companies that went public via SPACs were subsequently pummeled with what Bloomberg called “brutal” corrections.

Gornall can see a bettor’s logic to the Ginkgo gamble. In recent years stock market profits have been driven by just a handful of tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft—each now worth more than a trillion dollars. “The valuation could make sense if there is even a 1% chance that biology is the computer of the future and this is the company that achieves that,” says Gornall.

Other people’s products

Since it was founded, Ginkgo has spent nearly half a billion dollars, much of it building labs equipped with robots, gene sequencers and sophisticated lab instruments such as mass spectrometers. These “foundries” allow it to test genes added to microorganisms (often yeast) or other cells. It claims it can create 50,000 different genetically modified cells in a single day. A typical aim of a foundry project is to assess which of hundreds of versions of a given gene is particularly good at, say, turning sugar into a specific chemical. Kelly says customers can use Ginkgo’s services instead of building their own lab.

What’s missing from Ginkgo’s story is any blockbuster products resulting from its research service. “If you are labeling yourself ‘synbio,’ that is setting the bar high for success—you are saying you are going to the moon,” says Koeris. “You’ve raised so much money against a fantastic vision that soon you need to have a transformative product, whether a drug or some crazy industrial product.”

To date, Ginkgo’s engineering of yeast cells has led to commercial production of three fragrance molecules, Kelly says. Robert Weinstein, president and CEO of the US arm of the flavor and additives maker Robertet, confirmed that his company now ferments two such molecules using yeast engineered by Kelly’s company. One, gamma-decalactone, has a strong peach scent. The other, massoia lactone, is a clear liquid normally isolated from the bark of a tropical tree; used as flavoring, it can sell online for $1,200 a kilogram. Running a fermenter year-round could generate a few million dollars’ worth of such a specialty chemical.

Organism engineers: The five founders of Ginkgo Bioworks met at MIT. From the left: Reshma Shetty, Barry Canton, Jason Kelly, Austin Che, Tom Knight.

GINGKO BIOWORKS

To George Church, a professor at Harvard Medical School, such products don’t yet live up to the promise that synthetic biology will widely transform manufacturing. “I think flavors and fragrances is very far from the vision that biology can make anything,” says Church. Kelly also sometimes struggles to reconcile the “disruptive” potential he sees for synthetic biology with what Ginkgo has achieved. Church drew my attention to a May report in the Boston Globe about Ginkgo’s merger with Soaring Eagle. In it, Kelly said his firm was an attractive investment because the world was becoming familiar with the extraordinary potential of synthetic biology, citing the covid-19 vaccines made from messenger RNA and the animal-free proteins in new plant burgers, like those from Impossible Foods.

“The article was a list of achievements, but the most interesting achievements were from others,” says Church. “It doesn’t seem to add up to $15 billion to me.” Still, Church says he hopes that Ginkgo does succeed. Not only is the company his “favorite unicorn,” but it acquired the remains of some of his own synthetic-bio startups after they went bust (he also recently sold a company to Zymergen). How Ginkgo performs in the future “could help our whole field or hurt our whole field,” he says.

While Ginkgo’s work has not led to any blockbusters, and Kelly allows it’s “frustrating” that biotech takes so long, he says products from other customers are coming soon. The Cannabis company Cronos, based in Canada, says by the end of the year it will be selling intoxicating pineapple-flavored candy containing CBG, a molecular component of the marijuana flower; Ginkgo helped show it how to make the compound in yeast. A spinout from Ginkgo, called Motif FoodWorks, says it expects to have a synthetically produced meat flavor available this year as well.



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2021 has broken the record for zero-day hacking attacks

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2021 has broken the record for zero-day hacking attacks


“Part of the reason you’re seeing more now is because we’re finding more,” says Microsoft’s Doerr. “We’re better at shining a spotlight. Now you can learn from what’s happening at all your customers, which helps you get smarter faster. In the bad situation where you see something new, that will impact one customer instead of 10,000.”

The reality is a lot messier than the theory, however. Earlier this year, multiple hacking groups launched offensives against Microsoft Exchange email servers. What started as a critical zero-day attack briefly became even worse in the period after a fix became available but before it was actually applied to users. That gap is a sweet spot hackers love to hit. 

As a rule, however, Doerr is spot on.

Exploits are getting harder—and more valuable

Even if zero-days are being seen more than ever, there is one fact that all the experts agree on: they are getting harder and more expensive to pull off.

Better defenses and more complicated systems mean hackers have to do more work to break into a target than they did a decade ago—attacks are costlier and require more resources. The payoff, however, is that with so many companies operating in the cloud, a vulnerability can open millions of customers up to attack. 

“Ten years ago, when everything was on premises, a lot of the attacks only one company would see,” says Doerr, “and few companies were equipped to understand what was going on.”

Faced with improving defenses, hackers often must link together multiple exploits instead of using just one. These “exploit chains” require more zero-days. Success at spotting these chains is also part of the reason for the steep rise in numbers.

Today, says Dowd, attackers are “having to invest more and risk more by having these chains to achieve their goals.” 

One important signal comes from the rising cost of the most valuable exploits. The limited data available, such as Zerodium’s public zero-day prices, shows as much as a 1,150% rise in the cost of the highest-end hacks over the last three years. 

But even if zero-day attacks are harder, the demand has risen, and supply follows. The sky might not be falling—but neither is it a perfectly sunny day.

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How these US schools reopened without sparking a covid outbreak

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How these US schools reopened without sparking a covid outbreak


“Cleaning high-touch areas is very important in schools,” Cogan said. But mask-wearing, physical distancing, vaccinations, and other measures are “higher protective factors.”

8. Give agency to parents and teachers in protecting their kids.

Last school year, many districts used temperature checks and symptom screenings as an attempt to catch infected students before they gave the coronavirus to others. But in Austin, Indiana, such formalized screenings proved less useful than teachers’ and parents’ intuition. Instructors could identify when a student wasn’t feeling well and ask them to go see the nurse, even if that student passed a temperature check.

Jetelina said that teachers and parents can both act as a layer of protection, stopping a sick child from entering the classroom. “Parents are pretty good at understanding the symptoms of their kids and the health of their kids,” she said.

In Andrews, Texas, district administrators provided parents with information on covid symptoms and entrusted those parents to determine when a child may need to stay home from school. The Texas district may have “gone way overboard with giving parents agency,” though, Cogan said, in allowing students to opt out of quarantines and mask-wearing—echoing concerns from the Andrews County public health department.

9. We need more granular data to drive school policies.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve consistently called out a lack of detailed public data on covid-19 cases in schools. The federal government still does not provide such data, and most states offer scattered numbers that don’t provide crucial context for cases (such as in-person enrollment or testing figures). Without these numbers, it is difficult to compare school districts and identify success stories.

My research on school reopenings illuminated another data issue: most states are not providing any covid-19 metrics down to the individual district, making it hard for school leaders to know when they must tighten down on or loosen safety protocols. At the tiny Port Orford–Langlois district in Oregon, for example, administrators had to rely on covid-19 numbers for their overall county. Even though the district had zero cases in fall 2020, it wasn’t able to bring older students back in person until the spring because outbreaks in another part of the county drove up case numbers. Cogan has observed similar issues in New Jersey.

At a local level, school districts may work with their local public health departments to get the data they need for more informed decision-making, Jetelina said. But at a larger, systemic level, getting granular covid-19 data is more difficult—a job for the federal government.

10. Invest in school staff and invite their contributions to safety strategies.

School staff described working long hours, familiarizing themselves with the science of covid-19, and exercising immense determination and creativity to provide their students with a decent school experience. Teaching is typically a challenging job, but in the last 18 months, it has become heroic—even though many people outside school environments take this work for granted, Jetelina said.

Districts can thank their staff by giving them a say in school safety decisions, Cogan recommended. “Educators—they’ve had a God-awful time and had a lot more put on them,” she said. But “every single person that works in a school has as well.” That includes custodians, cafeteria workers, and—crucially—school nurses, who Cogan calls the “chief wellness officers” of the school.

11. Allow students and staff the space to process pandemic hardship.

About 117,000 children in the US have lost one or both parents during the pandemic, according to research from Imperial College London. Thousands more have lost other relatives, mentors, and friends—while millions of children have faced job loss in their families, food and housing insecurity, and other hardships. Even if a school district has all the right safety logistics, school staff cannot truly support students unless they allow time and space to process the trauma that they’ve faced.

P.S. 705 in Brooklyn may serve as a model for this practice. School staff preemptively reached out to families when a student missed class, offering support: “705 is just the kind of place where it is a ‘wrap your arms around the whole family’ kind of a school,” one parent said.

On the first day of school in September 2021—when many students returned in person for the first time since spring 2020—the school held a moment of silence for loved ones that the school community has lost.

New challenges ahead

These lessons are drawn from school communities that were successful in the 2020-2021 school year, before the delta variant hit the US. This highly transmissible strain of the virus poses new challenges for the fall 2021 semester. The data analysis underlying this project led me to profile primarily rural communities, which may have gotten lucky with low covid-19 case numbers in previous phases of the pandemic—but are now unable to escape delta. For example, the Oregon county including Port Orford–Langlois saw its highest case rates yet in August 2021.

The delta challenge is multiplied by increasing polarization over masks, vaccines, and other safety measures. Still, Jetelina pointed out that there are also “a ton of champions out there,” referring to parents, teachers, public health experts, and others who continue to learn from past school reopening experiences—and advocate for their communities to do a better job.

The Solutions Journalism Network supported this project with a reporting grant, as well as trainings and other guidance. Learn more about the five school communities I profiled in this project for the COVID-19 Data Dispatch.

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.

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US unfairly targeting Chinese over industrial spying, says report

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US unfairly targeting Chinese over industrial spying, says report


For years, civil rights groups have accused the US Department of Justice of racial profiling against scientists of Chinese descent. Today, a new report provides data that may quantify some of their claims. 

The study, published by the Committee of 100, an association of prominent Chinese-American civic leaders, found that individuals of Chinese heritage were more likely than others to be charged under the Economic Espionage Act—and significantly less likely to be convicted. 

“The basic question that this study tries to answer is whether Asian-Americans are treated differently with respect to suspicions of espionage,” said the report’s author, Andrew C. Kim,  a lawyer and visiting scholar at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “The answer to that question is yes. “

The study, which looked at data from economic espionage cases brought by the US from 1996 to 2020, found that just under half of all defendants were accused of stealing secrets that would benefit China. This is far lower than the figures laid out by US officials to justify the Department of Justice’s flagship China Initiative.

The study found that 46% of all defendants were accused of stealing secrets that would benefit China, while 42% of cases involved American businesses.

According to the report, 46% of defendants charged under the Economic Espionage Act were accused of activity that would benefit Chinese people or entities, while 42% of defendants were accused of stealing secrets that would benefit American businesses. 

The numbers directly contradict much of the Justice Department’s messaging around the China Initiative, which was launched in 2018 to combat economic espionage. The department has stated publicly—for example, in the first line of its home page for the China Initiative—that 80% of its prosecutions would benefit the Chinese state, reflecting “theft on a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history,” as FBI director Christopher Wray described it in 2020.

Since 2019, the program has largely targeted academic researchers. 

“Strong evidence of charges with less evidence”

The report was based on an analysis of public court filings, as well as Department of Justice press releases, for all Economic Espionage Act prosecutions between 1996 and 2020. It’s an update of an earlier analysis, published in the Cardozo Law Review, which covered the period up to 2016. 

Charges for “theft of trade secrets” and “economic espionage” were both included, with the “economic espionage” charge requiring proof of a “nexus to foreign entity” and accompanied by higher penalties. (These two categories make up only a portion of the charges under the China Initiative; Kim briefly mentions “false statements and process crimes,” and people have also been charged with grant fraud and lying on visa applications, among other crimes.)

Because demographic information and citizenship data is not included in court filings, Kim used names as proxies for race, and he used Google searches when names, like Lee and Park, were ethnically ambiguous. For citizenship, Kim noted that press releases often make prominent mention if a defendant is a “foreign national,” so he assumed that defendants were all citizens unless otherwise indicated. 

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