Synthetic biology is one of the most exciting and fastest growing industries in the world. But the field is developing differently in different regions of the world. Recently, SynBioBeta discussed the current state of synthetic biology in the United Kingdom and the United States with Dr. Stephen Chambers, former CEO of SynbiCITE in the UK and biotech veteran with a number of startups in the US. Recently awarded Royal Society’s Entrepreneur in Residence at Imperial College London, he is able to draw from his experience in both countries to illustrate the contrasting paths startups take and what challenges the industry must address as a whole.
One of the main differences between synthetic biology companies in the US and the UK is how they get started. The US government has invested huge amounts in synthetic biology research but relies greatly on the private sector to commercialize those outputs. While in the UK, with smaller research budgets and less well-developed innovation ecosystem, the government takes a much more activist role supporting the translation of research into commercial products and services.
“When the UK government makes a big research investment, they want to make sure there’s some kind of tangible outcome for the taxpayer,” explains Chambers. “one mechanism used are Innovation and Knowledge Centers (IKCs).” Unique to the UK, these centers act as nucleating centers for a wide range of technologies, from digital security to renewable energy. SynbiCITE is the IKC for synthetic biology;it functions like an accelerator providing resources and mentoring for startups.
Accelerators: New source of UK synthetic biology companies
As in the US, the entrepreneurial environment in the UK has benefited greatly from the recent appearance of a new player in the innovation ecosystem: “The arrival of accelerators providing early-stage startups a fixed-term, cohort-based program, with mentoring and exposure to investors is a game-changer. I think accelerators are one of the reasons we’re seeing a lot more synthetic biology entrepreneurial activity,” says Chambers.
The rapid rise of accelerators in the UK was reported in the 2017 publication Business Incubators and Accelerators: The National Picture. The authors identified over 170 multi-sector accelerators in the UK, increasing on average 40% each year between 2012-2017. The same report predicted that the number of accelerators will overtake incubators and concluded that accelerators are best seen as alternatives to incubators rather than precursors.
Accelerators like Rebel Bio, Deep Science Ventures and Entrepreneur First, with their focus on venture creation, are an increasingly popular path for up-and-coming UK synthetic biology companies. Unlike incubators, accelerators act more like spring-loaded launch pads. “The incubator model has been criticized for its lack of an exit and over reliance on long-term public funding for sustainability. Companies get comfortable and stay there,” says Chambers. “Accelerators are an ideal place to build a new venture, the environment is specifically designed to test your ideas quickly looking for a sustainable business model and avoid wasting precious time and money in the process.”
Out of the lab and into the foundry
Another distinctive feature of the synthetic biology scene in the UK has been the government funding of DNA foundries. These state-of-the-art facilities, include the London BioFoundry, were established to provide automated end-to-end design, construction and validation of complex genetic systems. Across the synthetic biology space, automation is an inherent necessity for crucial processes such as high throughput screening and large scale data analyses. Both U.K. and U.S startups need access to automation early in their growth so they can get a truer sense of what their product is and how they can scale.
“The Foundries role in accelerating research in engineering biology, required close collaboration with instrumentation companies, like Analytik Jena’s, which had the expertise to build platforms capable of automating a full range of synthetic biology protocols,” recalls Chambers. “I see the foundry concept as one of the main drivers for the standardization necessary to deliver the systematic design and engineering of biological systems.”
Image: courtesy of Stephen Chambers
Given the availability of support for entrepreneurs, it is probably not surprising that the UK is doing well creating in new startups. According to a SynbiCITE survey of UK synthetic biology startups published in 2017, the number of startups was doubling every 5 years. The problem is not enough startups are successfully scaling up. Companies appear to falter when it comes to identifying a sustainable business model to grow into larger companies.
This issue exposes the biggest difference between the two countries: the size of the capital markets. The number and sophistication of the US investors committed to this sector means that promising startups have access to capital on a scale that is not available to UK companies. In the past, this lack of early capital has restricted the ambition of UK startups, but this is now changing as the appetite for synthetic biology startups both in the UK, and more recently from foreign investors has grown.
We are also seeing a number of UK companies setting up in the US to access markets and capital. Both in the UK and US, there is a wealth of entrepreneurial excitement for synthetic biology. The ability to start a company has transcended national borders. “You can’t keep people on the farm anymore. People with ideas will go where there is money and resources. They’ll just go” observes Chambers.
In the past, UK synthetic biology startups could be accused for thinking small, but not anymore Chambers also sees a significant shift taking place. More and more UK startups are going beyond the “parochial, mom-and-pop” model and are aiming to make greater impacts.
“They are looking at resolving many of society’s most pressing problems,” says Chambers, referring to global issues like sustainability and climate change. “These aren’t little problems. Companies now understand that the scale of their ambitions has to grow if they want to scale.”
Initially, UK and US startups may face different hurdles. But there is an overarching concern the entire synthetic biology community must address in order for the synthetic biology revolution to succeed.
The importance of engaging the public
According to Chambers, the greatest danger synthetic biology faces today is a lack of communication with the public. Personalized therapeutics, weather-resistant crops, and climate crisis mitigation are just a few of the many ways synthetic biology is reshaping life in the 21st century. But none of these powerful innovations will get far without the support of the public. Chambers points to GMOs as a cautionary example. Many of the initial GMO products benefited the seed producer or farmer not the consumer.
The scientific community did a very poor job explaining the consumer benefits of GMOs, and this had a negative effect on public opinion in the UK. One study, published in Nature in January 2019, found that people who understand the least about GMOs were the most opposed to them. Chambers identified the scientific community’s collective failure to communicate on this issue. “This is something we’ve done wrong. It’s not [the public’s] fault, it’s ours.”
Synthetic biology is at a crucial juncture. UK startups are beginning to operate on a broader scale like their US counterparts. Synthetic biology’s role in addressing global problems is growing. But the non-scientific community needs to be included in that growth. The scientific communities in both the US and the UK are aware of this issue and are actively working to address it. But they may be aided or hindered by their respective governments. In 2017, the UK government issued a report on improving science communication and engagement. However, the current US government is shutting down those lines of communication. The online spread of false or misleading science possibly causes the most harm, regardless of the country.
Moving forward, it’s crucial that new science and technology be introduced in a way that doesn’t alienate people. Science companies – from startups to the well-established, in both the UK and the US – need to be in open dialogue with the public.
“There is a tendency for scientists and entrepreneurs to talk about the technology while people aren’t really interested in the technology,” says Chambers. “What the public want to know is how is it going to make their lives better? What we do and create has to be able to touch people’s lives.” Earning the public’s trust requires clear language, transparency, and honesty. “It’s amazing what we’re doing,” affirms Chambers. “It really doesn’t need to be hyped up.”
For all the challenges, Chambers eagerly anticipates the future, saying, “Synthetic biology and engineering biology are going from strength to strength across the globe. I’m sure we’ll have hiccups along the way. But I think it’s going to change the world for the better.”3