Although the majority of the synthetic biology market is concentrated in North America and Europe, the synthetic biology landscape is growing worldwide — with some of the fastest growing areas developing outside of the United States. There are several hotspots — formed when innovation at one company or university lab sparks new spinoffs — that synthetic biology followers should pay close attention to in the coming months and years.
The United Kingdom and Ireland
Among non-US hotspots for synthetic biology, the United Kingdom stands out. While most US universities still lack programs in synthetic biology, they are not hard to come by in the UK. Imperial College London, the University of Warwick, Cambridge University, and the University of Edinburgh are all particularly noteworthy for the depth and breadth of synthetic biology research. And, OpenPlant, a joint initiative between the University of Cambridge, John Innes Centre, and the Earlham Institute, is advancing synthetic biology by engineering the next generation of DNA tools for “smart” crop breeding systems.
There are also a staggering number of startup companies exploring synthetic biology in the UK and neighboring Ireland. Companies specializing in drug discovery, diagnostics, and therapies include Autolus, Nemesis, Linear Diagnostics, CHAIN biotech, Mission Therapeutics, Bicycle Therapeutics, Iksuda Therapeutics, and Quethera.
For eco-minded job-seekers, there are a number of companies focused on renewable chemicals, proteins, and polymers (Green Biologics, Colorifix, and Celbius), wastewater cleanup (CustoMem), and food waste (Entomics). And, several UK/Ireland-based companies (Biotangents, MIAlgae, Microsynbiotix, MillsBio, Tropic Bioscience, and 3F Bio) are building the next era of agriculture using synthetic biology. Software and AI is also a healthy market, led by Synthace, Lab Genius, and Desktop Genetics.
Several companies are also focused on the manufacture of industrial enzymes, flavors and fragrances (Oxford Biotrans, Enzbond, Absynth Biologics, Prokarium, Ingenza, and Biocatalysts), microfluidics (Fluidic Analysis and Sphere Fluidics), DNA manufacturing (Helixworks Technology), gene editing (Horizon Discovery and Oxford Genetics), and gene expression control (Synpromics).
Finally, there are a handful of UK companies working on really unique challenges such as 3D printing of tissues (OxSynBio), genetic control of disease vectors (Oxitec), cellular aging (CellAge), genetic testing (Destina Genomics), and compact laboratory kits for education and personal use (Bento Bioworks).
The UK is not the only place in Europe fostering a healthy synthetic biology research landscape. A number of synthetic biology companies call France – particularly Paris – home. A few unique synthetic biology initiatives in France include: Toulouse White Biotechnology, a preindustrial organization whose goal is to facilitate exchanges between academic research and industry, Glowee, a company that wants to make safe accessible glowing bacteria, and Denoive, a company focused on products from the Deinococcus bacterial genus.
Two French companies are taking interesting approaches to carbon flow. EnobraQ wants to use CO2 as a fermentation feedstock. Conversely, Global Bioenergies is working to produce renewable hydrocarbons from agriculture.
As always, probiotics (and antibiotics) are a thriving market in France, with several companies (Biomillenia, Eligo Bioscience and Unibiome) using synthetic biology to develop the next generation of products. French companies Arkema, PILI, and Metabolic Explorer are working to produce specialty or renewable chemicals. And DNA Script and Heurisko are working on DNA synthesis and directed evolution.
France also hosts the Institute of Systems & Synthetic Biology, and synthetic biology research opportunities can be found at the Pasteur Institute and the French National Center for Scientific Research.
Outside of France, several synthetic biology companies (Evonik Industries, Isobionics, Firmenich, Evolva, Succinicity, Reverdia, Corbion, Symrise, Lanxess, Wacker Chemie, and the Biotech Research and Innovation Network) focused on polymers, flavors, and fragrances are based in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Central European companies with unique research foci include Cellbrix, a German company working on 3D printed tissues, Mosa Meat, a cultured meat company in the Netherlands, and Q-gel, a Swiss company developing synthetic extracellular matrices.
Germany is also a mecca for biotech giants Bayer and BASF. Switzerland hosts Novartis. There is a Cargill site in Belgium. And Royal DSM and Unilever are headquartered in the Netherlands. Openings for synthetic biologists can potentially be found within any of these larger institutions.
Max Planck, One of Germany’s premier research institutes, has also supported synthetic biology research. Researchers interested in synthetic biology job opportunities in Germany may find it useful to connect with the German Association for Synthetic Biology (GASB).
Universities in the Netherlands are also rich with synthetic biology opportunities. There is a Department of Systems and Synthetic Biology at Wageningen and centers for synthetic biology at the University of Groningen and Maastricht University. Together, six Dutch universities have come together to form BaSyc, an initiative to build a synthetic cell. With so much academic research focused on synthetic biology, related job opportunities are likely to continue to grow in the Netherlands.
Though less evolved than their neighbors to the south, there is an emerging hub for synthetic biology in Northern Europe. The University of Copenhagen hosts a Center for Synthetic Biology and a handful of synthetic biology focused companies can be found throughout Denmark.
Research in this region is focused on biomanufacturing, and companies include Biosyntia, Chr Hansen, and Novozymes. Nearby neighbors Neste in Finland and Spiber Technologies in Sweden are working on renewable fuels and recombinant spider silk, respectively.
Canada is also a growing hotspot for synthetic biology, with a number of ongoing initiatives including SynBio Canada, the Synthetic Biology Innovation Cluster, several conferences,and a proposal for a Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute. There’s also a Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology at Concordia University in Quebec. Companies that might provide job opportunities for researchers trained in synthetic biology in Canada include Concentric Ag, Hyasynth Bio, Iogen, and Ontario Genomics.
China and the Asia-Pacific
While the majority of the non-US synthetic biology market is concentrated in Europe,market research reports predict that the Asia-Pacific Region will host the fastest growing market for synthetic biology in the coming years. Synthetic biology is taking off particularly rapidly in China.
In 2017, the Chinese Academy of Sciences launched the Institute of Synthetic Biology, which includes a Center for Quantitative Synthetic Biology, a Center for Synthetic Genomics, and a Center for Synthetic Biochemistry. China is also the largest non-US market for Thermo Scientific, and a wealth of job opportunities can be found at their Shanghai headquarters. China’s newly minted Synthetic Biology Association will likely continue to give rise to many future opportunities.
The synthetic biology landscape in Japan is also healthy, with the Research Center for Complex Systems Biology at the University of Tokyo and the Bioinformatics and Systems Engineering division within the research institute RIKEN leading growth.
Singapore is also aiming to become a global leader in synthetic biology, with the government launching a synthetic biology research and development program ($19 million USD) earlier this year. The program is prioritizing three areas: synthetic cannabinoids, rare fatty acids, and new strains of microorganisms to produce industrial products. The government-funded program is predated by the country’s first synthetic biology research centre, National University of Singapore’s Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI), which launched in 2015.
Synthetic Biology Australasia is a community hub for synthetic biology research in New Zealand and Australia. The Australian federal agency CSIRO also hosts a Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform. These efforts all support academic and government research, and should foster several startup efforts.
The future international landscape
While the US and Europe appear to enjoy an early lead in synthetic biology and biotechnology more generally, this is by no means a sure thing in the coming years. This is especially true as other countries develop their university-industry ecosystems and as countries like China and Singapore dramatically increase their research funding in what is projected to become a $38 billion industry by 2020. For both talent seekers and those seeking careers in rich synthetic biology hubs, the future is bright worldwide.4