European synthetic biology
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Technological Tourism: Your Handy Guide to the European Synthetic Biology Startup Scene

The startup scene is buzzing at the moment; new companies are being founded by the day, investor money is piling into the field in the hopes of catching the next unicorn, wild-eyed founders roam the streets with brilliant plans to change the world – at least once they can get that first round of seed funding. You are probably reading this with visions of San Francisco or Boston, but it would be foolish to pass over the major changes happening across the Atlantic, in the innovative hubs of Europe. Still confused? Better read through our handy 5-minute guide to the European synthetic biology startup landscape then.

Synthetic Biology Startup

5-Minute-Guide-to-the-Synthetic-Biology-Startup-Landscape-in-Europe. Click here for a larger version of the infographic.

The first requirement on everyone’s lips: show us the money! European countries are the base for almost a third of the world’s synthetic biology startups, with slightly less than one hundred found in our last survey. Investment scales matched this, with European companies pulling in over $900 million USD in private investment over the 2009-2015 period (this includes over $207 million USD last year alone) – this is slightly less than a third of the global investment during that period (~$3.2 billion USD).

As you’d expect in biotech, every company has a new and inventive way to achieve their fame and fortune. However the majority of companies (almost half, in fact) fall into the fields of pharmaceuticals/therapeutics, DNA synthesis, and bio-based chemical production. The largest share aim to produce novel pharmaceuticals, understandably given that the biotech revolution has been driving vast profits in the area ever since Genentech managed to produce recombinant insulin. Surprisingly, however, DNA synthesis is a clear second place –the ability to quickly and cheaply synthesise DNA is rapidly coming to support much of modern biotechnology, and firms are springing up to capitalise on this need.

The need for copious amounts of synthetic DNA (and the corresponding drop in synthesis prices) were just two of the major opportunities we found in our surveys. There was a significant increase in funding supply as well, both from venture capital and government grants. This funding is sorely needed, the road from clever laboratory idea to a solid business is a difficult one with a number of expensive toll-booths on the way. In this manner synthetic biology shares many attributes with pharmaceutical development and tech companies, with immense potential rewards linked to high cash burn rates (a process which can last a very long time, if we take Amazon as an example).

Potential entrepreneurs should not worry, however (well, no more than usual) – the European market is steadily gaining a number of venture funds and incubators with an eye to setting up the success stories of tomorrow. A number of these incubators are currently based in the UK and Ireland, with well-known names such as IndieBio, Imperial Innovations, and SynbiCITE setting the pace. They are matched by a similar number of venture capital firms such as Oxford Capital, Rainbow Seed Fund and the accelerator’s accelerator, SOSV.

Funding can’t solve everything of course, (it certainly Can’t Buy Me Love), and despite the proliferation of VC funds there remain several problems which affect the European synthetic biology scene. Some of these are universal – the difficulties of scaling processes up from the lab bench to the commercial production floor, or the sheer complexity of working with biological systems. Others are more apparent in Europe, such as the complexity of EU regulatory systems – this is particularly noticeable when dealing with genetically modified organisms. Tying into this are strong biosafety/biosecurity fears, which in turn may limit the spread of synthetic biology techniques across the continent.

Despite this, there are a number of major success stories coming from the European synthetic biology market. This include the ones everyone should have heard of (CRISPR Therapeutics springs to mind, as do the bright minds at Oxitec) as well as less-known successes such as Eligo Bioscience and Synthace. These companies are leading the wave of new synthetic biology firms which are targeting fields as diverse as virtual biology labs through to bio-hacker support groups.

Interested in learning a bit more than a quick five-minute overview can provide? SynBioBeta has a number of articles covering the latest news coming out of the synthetic biology scene – whether it be steady incumbents or zippy newcomers, we’re the place to find out what’s going on.

 

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Christopher Harrison

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