"We wanted to see how far we could take it," Shetty tells CNBC Make It. "So, we decided that a start-up was the best venue for being able to pursue our mission [and] our passion, which is to design biology."
The group formed Ginkgo in 2009 and spent the next several years surviving off of government research grants as they fine-tuned their process of genetically engineering microbes, including building automated tools that the company uses to collect genetic information from organisms, transform cells and rewrite DNA.
This was in the early days of the financial crisis and Ginkgo had no luck attracting outside investors. Money was sometimes tight, and so the co-founders improvised. For pennies on the dollar, Ginkgo bought the incredibly expensive equipment it needed from other biotech firms that had gone out of business due to the economic downturn.
"We put together our first lab for about $150,000, which is roughly 10 to 100 [times] cheaper than what most to biology labs get built for," Shetty tells CNBC Make It.
Ginkgo's star began to rise in 2014, when the startup became the first-ever biotech company to get the backing of tech start-up accelerator Y Combinator (which counts the likes of Airbnb and Reddit among its past participants). "Synthetic biology is one of the fastest-growing areas of tech right now, and Ginkgo is leading the category," Y Combinator president Sam Altman told TechCrunch in 2015.
In March 2015, Ginkgo raised $9 million from investors as part of the company's first significant fundraising round before picking up another $45 million (from a group led by Viking Global Investors) just a few months later.
"That was incredibly exciting to us, because it meant that real people, real investors on Wall Street were valuing our technology and what it could do for the world," Shetty says of Ginkgo's first major financing.
That money, and the other major investments that followed, paved the way for Ginkgo's rapid growth. The company has expanded from about 20 employees to roughly 200 over the past three years, Shetty says, with the early investments representing "the fuel you need to be able to build and launch a rocket ship."
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