July 15, 2018

Investment fuels cutting-edge synthetic biology in UK

UK synthetic biology
The UK synthetic biology ecosystem, as catalyzed by SynbiCITE. These and other companies will represent the UK at SynBioBeta 2018.

This story is brought to you by SynbiCITE, which is accelerating the commercialization of synthetic biology applications. To learn how SynbiCITE is nucleating a sustainable UK economy, visit www.synbicite.com.

Earlier this month, SynBioBeta’s John Cumbers presented a webinar on global business opportunities in synthetic biology from Paris. He was joined by Richard Kitney and Paul Freemont, co-Directors of SynbiCITE, from their offices in Imperial College London. They examined the investment increase in synthetic biology companies in both the UK and US and found the overall picture to be overwhelmingly positive. The upshot: synthetic biology is taking off.

Synthetic Biology Investment Landscape

The investment landscape in the field of synthetic biology has been tracked across leading companies by SynBioBeta. In just Q2 of this year, $925 million was raised by synthetic biology companies – nearly double the amount this time last year. Add to that a huge $650 million investment figure in Q1 and the synthetic biology industry is projected to raise $3 billion by the end of this year.

Similarly, growth figures for the UK industry have been tallied by SynbiCITE. In last year’s start-up report, the number of companies is doubling every five years. Since 2010, start-ups have raised over £620 M (~$820 M). Broken down, that’s £564 M ($745 M) in private investment and £56 M ($74 M) in public money through government grants, investment and SynbiCITE support.

synthetic biology uk

In the UK, SynbiCITE is one of many publicly funded organisations working towards growing the all-island bioeconomy. Its role is to coordinate with key organisations and businesses to best translate research into investment and companies.

SynbiCITE is the national industrial translation centre for synthetic biology, publicly funded by the UK government. In their own words, they aim to “create and nucleate start-ups, spinouts, small companies and mentor them and provide them with access to business acumen”. They also provide access to a suite of technologies to help data acquisition and get them to an investable state, before introducing them to investors and seed funders.

Prof Paul Freemont, Co-Director of SynbiCITE, at SynBioBeta 2017.

Among the key investors are UK Innovation and Science Seed Fund, established by the UK government as a venture capital fund to distribute public money into early stage synthetic biology start-ups. Paul speaks highly of this model of investment, explaining that it “levers public money into start-ups, to level further money from private sector to invest in very early stage seed companies. The public money is being really well used.” Patient capital funds and Amadeus Capital Partners have also invested in start-up and small synthetic biology companies nurtured by SynbiCITE.

Who’s who?

SynbiCITE figures suggest 146 synthetic biology start-ups are in the UK. If you want an aerial view, check out Labiotech.eu’s map of biotechnology companies. SynbiCITE has categorized them into several groups:

  • Tools and Services – Software / DNA synthesis / general
  • Biotech/Pharma
  • Chemicals
  • Agritech

There being so many tools and services companies is consistent with early stage, rapidly developing technologies which are feeding the drive of every synthetic biology company, says Freemont.

UK synthetic biology start-ups have raised over £620M (~$820M) since 2010, with the number of companies is doubling every five years. Graph data courtesy of SynbiCITE.

Here are a few of the SynbiCITE assisted UK companies attending SynBioBeta 2018:

Touchlight was founded in 2008 to develop DNA-based therapeutics and nanotechnology. The company has developed a revolutionary two-step enzymatic process to synthesise DNA, resulting in high-yields of DNA without the need for bacterial fermentation. They have also developed a nifty doggybone DNA vector!

TTP Labtech is a UK-based automation company specialising in liquid handling and sample management solutions with the goal of minimising assay volumes. This company is growing rapidly and it’s easy to see why given the range of applications and heavy-hitting customers like Monsanto.

Cell Free Tech was co-founded by Thomas Meany and Helene Steiners (if they sound familiar, you may have seen their other company Open Cell, creating affordable lab space from shipping containers in Shepherd’s Bush, featured on SynBioBeta last month). Cell Free Tech does exactly what it says on the tin – technology to test DNA circuits in vitro without the need for testing in huge libraries. This technology makes it feasible to test thousands of DNA circuits in a matter of hours, rather than hundreds in a few days as it stands with living systems.

Bento Lab will do for biology what the Raspberry Pi did for programming. Bringing science to the people is the most noble of endeavours but obvious financial and technological constraints means that can’t happen without a well-funded laboratory. Bento seeks to provide a molecular biology toolkit in a lunchbox.

Prokarium, founded by Dr Ted Fjällman, is a biopharmaceutical company that leverages synthetic biology to develop bio-based, thermostable oral vaccines. Earlier this year, Prokarium acquired $10 million in investment for development of their Vaxonella platform.

Oxford Genetics is a supplier of synthetic biology and bioproduction solutions. At its core, the company provides design and production of DNA and proteins, including antibodies, but also cell lines, high throughput assembly and process development. It’s the start-to-finish of synthetic biology all in one place.

Other honourable mentions in the UK synbio scene include Autolus (CAR-T cell therapy for cancer treatment), which raised >$150 million this year from IPO. Synpromics are developing synthetic promoters for cell and gene medicine. Freemont says that this ‘pure synthetic biology’ “…started off growing slowly and have suddenly accelerated. I think what we’re seeing is big industry is now beginning to engage with the technology.” Synthace is a software company developing a platform for biologists called Antha. They’ve recently partnered with Cambridge Consultants to help develop the platform. Last but by no means least, LabGenius are developing an artificial intelligence called EVA to aid in high-value protein discovery.

Why is investment on the rise?

According to SynbiCITE’s Freemont, the rapid increase in investments in synthetic biology companies can be put down to two things: increased government support and translation of research.

“Governments are putting a lot of emphasis on synthetic biology as a technology development,” he says, “and I think this public facing investment is starting to deliver opportunities for translation. The growing amount synthetic biology research around the world, particularly in the US and UK is clearly feeding into lots of fantastic ideas and opportunities which are now being translated into companies, investment and growth.”

uk synthetic biology

Co-director Kitney echoes this sentiment and emphasises worldwide government interest in developing the bioeconomy as a key factor in developing the overall economy. He added, “Synthetic biology is seen as an important driver in the bioeconomy, helped by the much stronger base in R&D.”

The SynBioBeta 2018 global conference is October 1-3 2018, along with Synthetic Biology Week (September 30 – October 6). SynbiCITE’s Richard and Paul will be in attendance, and are sponsoring the UK Partnering Lounge. SynbiCITE is also having a showcase of the UK synthetic biology companies on October 1 from 3-4.30 pm in San Francisco, in association with Penningtons Manches, the UK Bioindustry Association, and the UK Department for International Trade. If your company is UK-based and want to join the UK delegation with SynbiCITE, this is your chance to meet competitors and collaborators from across the pond! Get in touch with Paul and/or Richard if you want to join the SynbiCITE delegation.

This story is brought to you by SynbiCITE, which is accelerating the commercialization of synthetic biology applications. To learn how SynbiCITE is nucleating a sustainable UK economy, visit www.synbicite.com.

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