Intrexon’s Billionaire CEO Is Betting on the Most Controversial GMOs
You’ve probably never heard of Intrexon, but you’ve almost certainly seen headlines about the controversial companies it’s recently acquired. There’s Oxitec, which wants to release genetically modified mosquitoes to fight dengue fever. AquaBounty, whose genetically modified salmon has been stuck in FDA approval for years. Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which grows GM apples that don’t turn brown.
At a time of when public opinion against GMOs has gathered enough momentum to get GMO-labeling laws on the ballot and Chipotle to tout itself as GMO free, those are bold business moves.
“We don’t have any analysts who understand our company,” said Intrexon CEO Randal J. Kirk, with clear delight, during his keynote speech at SynBioBeta last week. Kirk played the renegade on stage, eschewing a slide deck (“Powerpoint corrupts absolutely”), touting Intrexon’s lack of corporate headquarters, and railing against those well-established “incumbent” companies that can afford to always lobby Congress. And of course, he talked about changing the world, all of which played very well to the crowd of San Francisco entrepreneurs.
But Kirk, a billionaire from selling two previous pharma companies, is no guy tinkering in the garage. And Intrexon is a 700-person synthetic biology company—a company that gets more coverage in the financial press than science press. “I’m a lifelong student of business,” said Kirk, when he sat down for a conversation with WIRED, and his interest in synthetic biology is clearly an economically driven one.
When did he first realize the untapped potential of synthetic biology? “In the first quarter of 2009,” he answered without missing a beat.
Kirk’s reputation as a businessman is what makes acquisitions like AquaBounty with its GM salmon so interesting. Sixty-five percent of Americans have said they won’t touch GM fish; mainstream supermarkets like Kroger and Safeway have said they won’t carry it. Oh, and after two decades of review, the FDA has yet to formally approve the fish. By buying a majority stake in the company, Intrexon likely kept it from collapse.
Why make such a risky bet? “Why we can afford to be patient is perhaps the better question,” answered Kirk. “The primary benefit of Intrexon is that we can afford to take on projects that are short, medium, and long term.”
Intrexon can afford to play the long game because it has its fingers in nearly every synthetic biology pot. Its website—dna.com—lists its many projects and partnerships in addition to the mosquitos, salmon, and apples. Microbes that create diesel fuel? Check. Engineered cells that fight cancer? Check. Pet cloning? Check. Art made with living microbes? Uhh, check.
Most of Intrexon’s revenue, though, comes from livestock breeding genetics—the kind that’s already legal, genetically typing animals and combining them to create the best possible dairy cow—and the company is now cloning them, too. “If you’re afraid of clones, you should be afraid of twins,” says Kirk, dismissing concerns about cloned cows. He is just as pragmatic about fears over GMOs. “If it delivers tangible benefit to consumer, then most of the so-called sociopolitical issues go away,” he says. With synthetic biology, Intrexon could change the world; it could also make a lot of money.
At time when a scientists are desperately trying to manage the application of increasingly powerful genetic editing technology, talking in such stark business terms can be a bit, well, unnerving. When I first tried to describe Intrexon to my boyfriend, whose interest in biology is limited to the conversations I force onto him, he replied, half jokingly, by comparing it “Resident Evil.” Yeah, the video game, which starts with a fictional company called Umbrella Corporation whose genetic engineering project unleashes zombies into the world. That is, of course, a purposefully apocalyptic scenario from, again, a video game. But it telegraphs very real anxieties about technology in the hands of big corporations.
Kirk, when pressed on his ambitions for Intrexon, deftly returns to the language of disruption. “We clearly have an opportunity to be one of the great companies of the world,” he says. But Intrexon, which has already grown to hundreds of employees, won’t become an incumbent, says Kirk. Incumbents are bad, lazy, good only at politics. “If we ever transition from an innovation-based company to a company based on incumbency,” he says, “then I will probably not be part of this company.” If Kirk has his way, then the innovations from synthetic biology are only just getting started.
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