February 21, 2017

Launching a “Moonshot Factory” in the Rebel Country: Cork’s SynBio Scene

RebelBio
The RebelBio Speakers and RebelBio team at UCC in Cork, Ireland. (Image: © Emmet Curtin)

Last week was the former IndieBio EU ‘Building a better world’ conference, to launch the new identity of SOSV’s sister incubator: RebelBio.

According to Elsa Sotiriadis, the Program Director, RebelBio is short for “Rebellious Biotechnologies” and this reflects “moonshot thinking and the goal to democratise scientific innovation and its benefits.”

With talks from NASA scientists, biohackers, venture capitalists and some of the best Academics in the European synthetic biology scene, we congregated at UCC to celebrate the field – and more importantly, brainstorm.

Re-branding IndieBio EU

RebelBio is looking to strike out as a separate programme to Indie Bio, its sister incubator in San Francisco, based on differences in programme target and length.  

This is because RebelBio offers 4 months for “both driven scientists and biomakers from anywhere”, whereas IndieBio in SF is offering a 4-month programme for PhD scientists and professionals globally.

The idea behind the Cork, Ireland-based incubator is to therefore nurture the ambition and innovation behind synthetic biology practice, regardless of academic background and geography.

Besides, it’s in hackspaces and other underground makeshift hobbyist labs a lot of the true innovation is going on, and the industry is finally starting to recognise that.

“Cork is known as the rebel county of Ireland and that revolutionary spirit is captured in our new name,” said Bill Liao, Founder of RebelBio and General Partner of SOSV.

We see this as a beacon to global biomakers to come and make their efforts into transformational businesses,” he added.

So, moving on to the day itself…

HI-SEAS

The HI-SEAS set up on Mauna Loa side of the saddle area on the Big Island of Hawaii, approx 8200 ft above sea level (Image:  © Kate Greene (in the photo) and Sian Proctor (HI-SEAS)

NASA and SynBio?

A keynote was delivered by Cyprien Verseux, the French astrobiologist. As a graduate from Institut Sup’Biotech in Paris, Cyprien joined the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation IV (HI-SEAS) programme by NASA from August 2015 until August last year.

His mission was as the biologist of the crew, which spent a full year in isolation atop a volcano in Hawaii, to simulate the conditions of living on Mars.

Communication to the real world was limited, food rationed and laboratory equipment within the dome was supplied as if it had been packed and flown out to space.

If you’ve seen the film ‘The Martian’, it’s not all that different from what Cyprien and the HI-SEAS IV team tried to simulate.

For example, NASA is interested in finding out whether synthetic biology practice could be used to form a sustainable living environment – and what exactly the psychological and biological cost of living in isolation can be.

Cyprien Verseux

Cyprien Verseux © Tristan Bassingthwaighte (HI-SEAS)

3D-bioprinting, engineering Yeast and Antha language

Other speakers included a representative from the Munich iGEM team which won the Grand Prize at the Boston Giant Jamboree last year, Volker Morath.

Volker’s project was looking at a solution to using complicated matrices when 3D-bioprinting. His team – biotINK – was formed from students at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, Germany.  

Together they induced bacteria to coagulate and form a sticky biofilm to hold the cells together, getting rid of the need for a matrix to work as a tissue scaffold, which is tricky and expensive to remove after printing.

Volker Morath

Volker Morath and the Munich biotINK iGEM team with Prof. Dr. A. Skerra, Chair of Biological Chemistry, at (Image: iGEM/TUM).

Also on the topic of printing, another startup – and in fact RebelBio graduate – Eshna Gogia of Helixworks told us about her team’s platform to offer commercial DNA storage on Amazon through openMoSS.

Eshna shared the team’s experience of being a Cork-based startup and announced a new product in planning, a DNA printer kit for the home.

Professor Benjamin Blount, Post-Doc at the Ellis Lab at Imperial College London’ Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation, also shared his insights: from brewing next-generation beer, to building a synthetic yeast genome and the lab’s genome editing technology SCRAMBLE.

RebelBio

Some of the RebelBio Team (left to right): the new Chief Scientist John Carrigan, Program Director Elsa Sotiriadis, Associate Director and Programme Manager Steve O’Connell and Founder of RebelBio and SOSV Investment Partner, Bill Liao (Image © Emmet Curtin)

Elsa also spoke on ways in which we can de-risk R&D and manage failure, in order to achieve these biotech ‘Moonshots’.

One angle for improving translation from the lab to industry is through automation of laboratory practice.

For example, Dr. Xander Anderson came to speak to us about Synthace, a London and Cambridge based startup which is developing the programming language and operating system Antha.

Xander spoke on the demand for an automation of lab work, to move towards high-throughput robotic workflow – what he called the ‘Lab 2.0’.

Biohackathons and the edge of Art

Jerome Lutz, founder of SynBio.info, also joined the speakers, with the principal message: there are a lot of really interesting SynBio projects happening in Europe. We need to collaborate more, share our ideas and help push such innovation forward.

In particular, Jerome was interested in how robots and artificial intelligence can create interfaces with biology to “recombine technologies” to unlock their potential.

Also based in Munich, he spoke on the upcoming CRISPR Kitchen’s Genome Hacking Retreat next month, and some stories from the TechFest hackathon in September, which had sponsorship with AstraZeneca.

Dr Tom Meany also came to speak from the Haseloff Lab in the department of plant sciences at Cambridge University, and he currently working on setting up an academic consultancy, Cambridge Minds.

Tom spoke to us about the convergence of biology and technology, cell-free technology, optogenetics, the value of design an upcoming collaboration with the Royal College of Art London.

Jerome Lutz

Jerome Lutz and the Ultimaker (Image: TUM)

Sofinnova, Genomics Medicine Ireland and the Bioeconomy

Finally, there was a panel to discuss what’s ahead in the Bioeconomy with Dr. Josko Bobanovic, Partner of the Green Seed Fund at Sofinnova, Elsa Sotiriadis and Dr. Maurice Treacy, Director and Co-founder of Genomics Medicine Ireland.

Moderated by Cathal Garvey, Co-founder of Biomakerspace Formalabs, the panel discussed specific moonshots in Synthetic biology, and how the field is struggling to engage.

“Crispr is a great thing, but actually it’s just a tool that allows people to do great things. It’s a commodity. Like windows,” said Bobanovic.

However, with the ongoing patent troubles CRISPR is famously experiencing, Elsa added “If crispr had been patented immediately, it would have been detrimental… The open source side allowed adoption and innovation to go up.”

Which is why collaborating, helping innovation and keeping things open, works.

RebelBio applications for the next cohort are due at the end of the month, to start in April.

Prof. Patrick O’Shea

President of University College Cork Prof. Patrick O’Shea closing the conference on Feb 9th (Image © Emmet Curtin)