The Generalist - Twist Bio: DNA & APIs 🧬

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Hey friends,

I’m really excited to share something special this week.

For several years, I’ve been a reader and admirer of Alex Danco's newsletter. Not only is Alex a delightful writer β€” slippery, fun, infuriatingly clever β€” he’s also one of the most adventurous thinkers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in tech. Naturally, I was thrilled to have him profile The Generalist earlier this year, and still feel he captured something of this publication’s spirit that even I haven’t articulated perfectly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Alex was my first call when looking for someone to cameo this week. In the piece below, you’ll hear his take on Twist Bioscience, one of his personal fascinations and a rather mesmerizing business.

Alex wants me to note that he does own shares in Twist, so we shouldn’t take his work as investment advice β€” rather the impassioned explanation of an admirer.

I hope you enjoy it β€” I certainly learned a lot.

We'll resume normal service next week with a piece from yours truly. And if you don’t already, I’d recommend signing up to Alex’s newsletter. I am a happy subscriber.​
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Actionable insights

If you only have a couple minutes to spare, here’s what investors, operators, and founders can learn from Twist Bioscience.

  • Old technologies can inspire breakthroughs. Modern DNA manufacturing was improved by taking inspiration from inkjet printers. New methods like those used by Twist "print" sequences at a reduced cost and with increased flexibility.
  • Discount rate environments have helped companies like Twist. Biotech businesses like Twist tend to be capital intensive; they need considerable funding to get off the ground and grow. That might have been a tough sell in the past, but the current environment allows for such an approach.
  • Biotech companies can earn SaaS multiples. Twist trades at around 30x of sales. That's a reflection of its (mostly) recurring revenue, and investors' belief that a biotech inflection may be on the horizon.
  • Twist may help shift biotech's "founding" paradigm. Traditional tech businesses are often forged by a singular founder, responsible for defining and driving the vision. Biotech businesses have typically followed a different model with a "scientist" de-risking the tech while a "manager" handles commercialization. This structure can limit the types of companies created. Twist's infrastructure and tooling may allow for more founder-led experimentation.

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Last Friday Ginkgo Bioworks went public through a SPAC merger.

It was a joyful day for the synthetic biology community, and for an ideological movement, best described as "solarpunk aesthetic." In contrast to today's parade of software IPOs, which are usually great companies but not particularly radical in the grand scheme of things, Ginkgo Bioworks and the solarpunks have an actually wild and fascinating vision of the future. It's the idea that we're going to build the future by growing living things. The movement has a name: synthetic biology.​

The past thirty years of software have conditioned us to think about value creation through the lens of the infinite leverage. There's no ceiling to how well-crafted the world's information and communication streams can be logically arranged; that's why we say that "Software is eating the world." If the solarpunks have their way, the next thirty years will show us the same thing is true for physical things. We catch occasional glimpses of this future, like this bioengineered fireproofing material for airplane wings, reminding us: "There's no reason we can't build a better version of anything, with the right tools and the right founders." And the arms race is on to build those tools.

That's why today, I'm not going to tell you about Ginkgo Bioworks, as awesome a company as they may be. I'm going to tell you about the platform behind them, a factory for building the DNA strands upon which all of life science is subsequently abstracted. That company is called Twist Bioscience. It's one of my favorite companies in the world.

Twist is a DNA factory. They start with inputs β€” the A, C, T and G chemical letters that make up the base-4 code for life on earth. And they produce outputs: sequences of DNA, called oligonucleotides, whose code gets compiled by cells into molecular products and molecular work. In that sense, they are a manufacturing company.

Twist is also a software company. Led by a brilliant founder, Dr. Emily LeProust, Twist isn't a traditional biotech success story β€” it's the beginning of a new kind of founder-led, product-oriented bio business that looks much more like a tech startup than a life sciences bet.

Today, I'm going to tell you all about them.


IN A MEME

For the visual learners, here's today's piece in an image.

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PUZZLER

All guesses welcome and clues given to anyone that would like one. Just respond to this email for a hint.

What are the next three letters in this combination?
​
​
OTTFFSS

Jim W kept his streak going, and proved himself the master forager once again. He was joined by William M, and Dan M in supplying them stated answer to last week's riddle:

What room has neither doors nor windows?

The answer? A mushroom. Those that enjoyed that savory wordplay may also enjoy the surfeit of clever alternative answers. Here were some of my favorites:

  • Legroom (Kaitlyn R)
  • Chatroom (Kaitlyn R, Sven K, Michl O)
  • Broom (Keshav J, Raghu)
  • Room for improvement (Dan M)

Excellent work, across the board.

It's raining in my neck of the woods, making it a perfect day to do some reading and storm-watching. I'm currently working my way through Confederacy of Dunces, which is quite funny, if rather different than I'd imagined. Hope that you all have a chance for some reading and relaxing wherever you are.

See you soon,

Mario

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