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Four synthetic biology startups to watch in 2019

The bioeconomy is growing at an impressive rate, and doesn’t show signs of slowing. In 2017, 2016 was the year to beat. No problem — the bar was easily set higher than ever, and the community excitedly looked toward 2018. By the end of Q2, 2018 was already a banner year, raising four-times more funds than in Q2 2017.

We can learn a lot about our bioeconomy just by looking at the new companies founded this year. Who are they, what are they doing, and where are they — and what do the answers to those questions have to tell us, if anything, about the synthetic biology forecast? Let’s take a look at four of the most exciting new faces that 2018 brought us.

New Synthetic Biology Startups to Watch

Ansa Biotechnologies

DNA synthesis is the cornerstone of synthetic biology and demand for the technology is growing at an unprecedented rate. California-based Ansa Biotechnologies is seeking to upend an industry that has relied on chemical processes for decades, providing accurate, clean, and, importantly –fast — DNA using enzymes instead of chemicals.

Ansa Biotechnologies
Sebastian Palluk (left) and Daniel Arlow of the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), co-founders of Ansa Biotechnologies, have pioneered a new way to synthesize DNA sequences. (Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

Leveraging nature’s toolbox, the company is optimizing a DNA polymerase called Terminal Deoxynucleotidyl Transferase (TdT), which usually synthesizes DNA randomly. By controlling the activity of TdT while maintaining its speed, Ansa hopes to eliminate the DNA synthesis bottleneck in the test/build/learn cycle of synthetic biology research.

Enzymatic methods indeed seem to be the future of high-throughput DNA synthesis, and Ansa joins a few other companies already working hard to optimize enzymatic DNA synthesis. It’s an area of synthetic biology that we should all be watching carefully.

Humane Technologies Limited

The high cost of lab equipment often makes scientific experimentation impossible, and can limit research only to those endowed with sufficient financial resources. University of Warwick professors Kalesh Sasidharan and Orkun S Soyer were tired of this problem — so they created Humane Technologies Limited to make science affordable and possible for large and small companies, universities, and citizen scientists alike.

MicrobeMeter

MicrobeMeter is a device that allows cultivation of microbes and measurement of their growth over long-time spans at high temporal resolution.

Focused on three areas — biomedical devices, biotechnology microbial processes, and life sciences fundamental research — the company helps bring products from prototyping all of the way to mass production. They currently offer two products, MicrobeMeter and Measure-It, but their ultimate goal is to one day offer a complete product line, making “the £10000 laboratory” a reality.

“What sets us apart … is that we are making the designs for our equipment available to the public, so that people with access to 3D printing and basic electronics can assemble their own devices at minimal cost. We believe that this open source approach is a key to democratising science and enabling larger groups of students, qualified scientists, and citizens to access the equipment that professional research labs take for granted,” said Sawyer in a University press release. In a landscape where DIY Bio is thriving, it will be interesting to watch Humane Technologies and track their impact on facilitating “citizen synthetic biology.”

iMEAN

Based out of Ramonville-Saint-Agne, France, iMEAN (In silico ModEls ANalyses) strives to address one of the biggest challenges facing synthetic biology today: sorting through the noise to find the useful data. How do they do it? Digital organisms.

iMEAN

iMEAN developed an artificial intelligence algorithm (that they call the tracker) to design organisms.

The iMEAN technology is “based on the reconstruction of digital organisms describing the complex genome-scale molecular networks of the living organisms modeled.” They combine their database with AI algorithms to generate models, which undergo systems-biology-based analyses grounded on causal mechanisms that explain the complex relationship between genotypes, phenotypes, and environment. Serving industry and academics alike, iMEAN provides services as simple as specific analyses within existing models or as complex as entire model reconstruction and analysis.

iMEAN is a company to watch — their technology has the potential to streamline synthetic biology research, helping scientists to make sense of their data, optimize biological processes, and ultimately increasing the efficiency and output of the R&D process.

Pairwise Plants

As we seek to feed the world’s rapidly growing population, novel agricultural solutions are desperately needed. What if you could decrease the time to genetically optimizing a plant for nutritional value or desired flavor from decades to a few years? This is exactly what North Carolina-based Pairwise Plants promises.

Through CRISPR base editing technology (new genome-editing tools that convert nucleotides without double-stranded breaks) licensed from Harvard University, Pairwise harnesses the natural genetic variation present in plants to create nutritious, convenient, affordable, and sustainable plants that people will want to eat. Their technology allows them to target the trait they want to emphasize, such as flavor, without bringing along other traits that may not be as desirable, such as disease susceptibility.

By optimizing existing crops and creating new ones through gene editing, Pairwise truly has the potential to tackle hunger and malnutrition — some of the today’s most serious challenges — making the world a better place for everyone. They are a company to watch.

Although 2018 wasn’t a booming year for synthetic biology startups, those that did break onto the scene are tackling some of the biggest synthetic biology market areas and worldwide problems facing us today. They aren’t alone, and will face challenges posed not just by competitors but by the biology they are trying to leverage. And, they’ve proven one thing already — synthetic biology is leading the way to a better, more sustainable universe.

Embriette Hyde

Embriette Hyde

A trained microbiologist with over 7 years of experience in microbiome research, Dr. Embriette Hyde is passionate about bringing science to the public. She is currently working as Managing Editor at SynBioBeta and mentors K-12 students through Schmahl Science Workshops, fostering passion for science from a young age.

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