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Arzeda combines cloud computing and bioengineering to create ‘cell factories.’ (Arzeda Photo)

Here’s a wacky concept. Imagine you could give a microorganism, like yeast, specific instructions on what to produce during fermentation.

Through the same process used to make beer or sourdough bread, you could coax the yeast into producing any chemical compound or enzyme you like.

That may sound like science fiction, but Arzeda says it’s already a reality.

The Seattle biotech startup is using this fermentation process to create “everything from the material used to make the tent you take on camping trips, to eco-friendly paints, and even pharmaceuticals or food ingredients,” according to CEO Alexandre Zanghelini.

Arzeda’s customers are using the technology in areas like agriculture and manufacturing.

Arzeda CEO Alexandre Zanghellini. (Arzeda Photo)

“We are also using the technology to develop our own innovative products,” said Zanghelini. “We’re looking forward to the day when industrial, environmental and health challenges are routinely addressed by designing the perfect molecule for the job.”

Arzeda is made up of a team of computational biologists — Doctors Eric Althoff, David Baker, Daniela Grabs, and Zanghelini. Their work has been published in the academic journals Science and Nature.

We caught up with Zanghelini for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Arzeda uses synthetic biology and cloud computing to make the products we need more sustainable, perform better, and cost less.”

Inspiration hit us when: “While at the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design we realized how we could use cloud computing to sort through trillions of possible combinations, design new enzymes and assemble them into the best biochemical pathways to make custom-designed molecules. We published our results and founded Arzeda the same year.”

Arzeda’s technology uses microorganisms to convert sugars into custom-designed enzymes and compounds. (Arzeda Image)

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrap. Bootstrapping at first allowed us to experiment a lot in the marketplace and find the best commercial applications of our technology. It allowed us to gain solid traction in partnerships with large Fortune 500 leaders in their business.

Bootstrapping also forced us to have the discipline to develop a very lean operation (we did not have running water when we started our lab operations). It’s very rare in biotech, and we are very proud of that. We all worked hard to accomplish this and it certainly had an impact on our personal lives.

Long term, to reach the scale we envision, we will need outside capital. But having paying customers, proof that the technology works and a lean organization is what any investor wants to see.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our secret sauce is found in the tight integration we have built between the latest biotechnology techniques and extremely powerful computing. That’s why our geeks (software developers) and lab-rats (molecular biologists) work side-by-side in the same open space. We could choose to be a biotech company, or we could choose to be a software company, but the combination is what makes Arzeda greater than the sum of its parts.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Getting off the ground. Starting a company to build a synthetic biology technology platform that nobody has ever used before sounds like a big lift — and it is — but once we got started the momentum has carried us.

Also, not spending $50,000 on a branding firm to create our name. We did it by rearranging the initials of the founders until we landed on something that sounded biotech-y.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Some of our deals have taken longer to arrange than we expected. This is a brand-new technology, and countless industries can make use of it. It takes time to communicate the full potential.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “We use AWS for our cloud services so the shout-out goes to Bezos. Still, all three of these guys know what it takes to innovate something entirely new. Maybe we can find a way to isolate the most successful genetics of each?”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “We are headquartered in a Seattle neighborhood with loads of new microbreweries. It lends itself very well to team-building.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “A strong alignment with our values, and a vision for synthetic biology and its potential to change the world for the better.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Running a startup will have an enormous impact on your personal life, so make sure what you are working for is worth the stress. That’s what we have done and the ride has been great. We wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

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