Synthetic biology has been a joint effort since its conception. From academic researchers to legislators and venture capitalists, synbio as both a technology and innovation ecosystem has been forged by different hands and different perspectives. These are some of the sectors and players that are making biology easier to engineer today.
Be it through funding research grants, company incentives for innovation or constant upgrading of regulations, government-related entities play a key role as an enabler of tech in general, and synbio in particular. The UK Department for International Trade (previously known as Trade & Investment office), for example, has held competitions for applications of synthetic biology to new materials, defense and others, offering over a million pounds for research funding. Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, looks for companies and organizations capable of growing the UK economy through tech and science-based innovation, and recently launched a 2 million pound contest for UK businesses working in bio-based fuels. DARPA is another great example of innovation-driven government agencies, having backed initiatives such as the Broad Institute Foundry at MIT through a $32 million dollar contract back in 2015. The UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) also presents an interesting combined approach, having recently announced an integration with the Home Office’s Centre for Applied Science and Technology.
Specialized synbio centres have also started to emerge in many universities worldwide. The University of Copenhagen’s Center for Synthetic Biology, for example, was established in 2009 on the basis of a grant from the Danish government, and has even sprouted a Center for the Commercialization of Synthetic Biology (CC Synbio) that aims to “spark a new industrial revolution in Denmark”. The Technical University of Munich (also dubbed “The Entrepreneurial University”) has also taken its first steps in the matter with its newly established KLang lab for synthetic biochemistry, which focuses on targeted chemical synthesis of tailor-made biomolecules. This intersection of synbio and broader application areas has other adepts: MiloLab, hosted at the Weizmann Institute of Science, also seeks to leverage synbio tools, this time putting the spotlight in energy and carbon metabolism to solve the grand challenge of sustainability. Meta-studies have also started to appear from entities such as Innogen: an institute that explores the social and economic impact of innovation in life sciences, formed as a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and the Open University.
Investment & Ecosystem building
If you want a specific branch of science to blossom into technology and finally flourish into a full-fledged business, government cannot (and should not, fight me on this one) be its sole funder. And even though biotech investment has been a tricky subject for decades, with even more emphasis in the tricky part for 2015-2016, some brave ones remain. Amadeus Capital, for example, has been investing in young companies for the past 20 years, and though their portfolio is quite broad, some notable biotech cases such as Congenica (and their very recent $10M series B) stand out brightly. Another experienced and ubiquitous player in this area, SOSV, continues their support of early and commercialization-stage companies through Indie Bio and the recently rebranded Rebel Bio, arguably the most renowned programs in the synbio startup space internationally. New players keep emerging as well, as is the case for SynbiCITE , a UK-based accelerator for synbio that recently announced the names of the 15 companies forming their inaugural cohort. Other ecosystem enablers count organizations such as Europabio, which promotes an innovative environment for the biotech industry in Europe, and Acib, the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology, which operates like a one stop place for research, internationalization and biotech activities in the country and region.
Biotech as a service, be it through gene sequencing, plasmid design, protein synthesis and many others have finally made outsourcing in our area a common and economically sustainable practice. Now with just a computer and funding you can commission anything from custom biological material to full experiments run, just a click (and a credit card swipe) away. If you are shopping for your lab, you will probably come across many different providers: Genewiz, for example, provides DNA sequencing, gene synthesis, molecular biology, genomic and antibody services; Twist Bioscience specializes in synthetic DNA for many applications, such as bio-detection, functional genomics, genome engineering, drugs & biodefense, and data storage. Oxford Genetics also focuses on DNA design, protein expression optimization and cell line development technologies and services, while you may turn to Synbio Tech for specific outsourcing such as library design and synthesis, CRISPR design and de novo DNA synthesis, or to DNA Script for genome-scale synthesis. For more specific searches, you might fnd TTPLabtech, which minimizes assay volumes through sample management solutions for drug discovery; Synpromics for custom-built synthetic promoters, Prospect Bio for biosensor precursors; SilicoLife for software tools to accelerate strain design and bioprocess optimization; commission biocatalysts from Codexis in the US or Biosyntia in Denmark; Isomerase Therapeutics for drug discovery and development; even directed in vivo evolution is now customizable and outsourced by parties such as Heurisko. Even full industrial experiments can be commissioned with a click. From pre-industrial demonstration with Toulouse White Biotechnology, to platform technologies for product development like Biomillenia and even to robotic cloud laboratories with Transcriptic, synbio is today ad portas of becoming a real on-demand technology.
The range of end-user products currently in development in biotech industries throughout the world is a testament to the acceleration of synthetic biology and biotech that all these areas are achieving. From Synvaccine’s viral-based products to Opentrons personal pipetting robots, customers both inside and out the industry can have access to the latest advances made possible by current biotech. Labs with an interest in CRISPR can store their shelves with Synthego’s kits to improve their efficiency, get all the base equipment for about any experiment ever from ThermoFisher, turn to Primordial Genetics to improve the performance of their bio-production systems, and upgrade their operating system to something that actually makes sense for biology, like Synthace’s Antha. And many companies are changing their industries from a biotech point of view too: Evolva, for example, reaches customers with flavor and fragrances produced in through “21st century brewing”; Algiknit develops wearable textiles from abundant biopolymers, BluePHA creates disposable and degradable bioplastic, CustoMem generates customizable membranes targeting pollutants in water; Bento Lab wants to democratize science access through low-cost pocket labs, and Glowee makes what’s probably the most aesthetically pleasing light sources ever using bioluminescence.
These entities are paving the way to an even more accelerated pace for new bio-based organizations. How do you expect them to interact in the future? Do you expect the areas to combine and the divisions to blur in the near future? What new initiatives would you expect to see blossom in a new era for synthetic biology?
Join us at SynBioBeta London 2017 to hear from these organizations and companies, April 4-6th at Imperial College