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Reviewing the SynBio Startup Scene in 2016

Bored of the daily grind? Feel like taking your future into your own hands? Convinced that your ideas have the potential to change the world and (just possibly) make a lot of money? Then you’ve most likely already thought about founding your own start-up. Given that you are on this site, you’re probably thinking of synthetic biology too. Well, you’re in luck, because this is the moment when synthetic biology really begins to take off. Don’t believe us? Well read on, get the facts, and make up your own mind.

We’ve previously covered the European synthetic biology start-up scene, so now it’s time to look at the US market. As seen in many high-tech areas, the US has a leading position when it comes to both start-up numbers and available funding. There are over 190 companies working in synthetic biology across the US, between them they’ve pulled in almost $830 million USD in private investment in 2016 (i.e. venture capital and angel investors). That’s $830 million in 2016 alone, compare that to the worldwide numbers of $3.3 billion USD over the past six years and you see the preponderance of investor money sloshing around the US market.

Well, we say US market, but the numbers show that California is far and away the most common location for synthetic biology companies to be situated – a clear indication of the state’s role as a tech start-up haven. Coming a distant second is Massachusetts, which has a mere third of the number of firms as California. However the pivotal role Cambridge/Boston is currently playing as a biotech hub means that we’re likely to see a jump in the number of Massachusetts-based syn bio firms in the near future.

synbio startups

As with company location, the amount of investment which they receive also isn’t distributed evenly. Three companies, Intellia Therapeutics, Ginkgo Bioworks and Editas Medicine, have taken in the majority of private investment, with Intellia leading the pack at $108 million USD in investment in 2016. Both Editas and Intellia are investigating Crispr/Cas systems for therapeutic roles, a potentially paradigm-shifting technique which could make the right company very, very successful indeed. Ginkgo, by contrast, acts as a platform for the creation of new synthetic organisms. By positioning themselves as a cornerstone provider of synthetic biology tech, the company is in a good spot for growth – hence the $100 million USD which has been pumped into the company in 2016 alone. All of these firms, incidentally, are based in Cambridge or Boston, MA.

But there are many different syn bio start-ups in the US market and they focus on many different areas. In fact, unlike location and funding, the market focus of the companies we surveyed was quite evenly split between many different areas. By a small margin, the most popular areas being targeted were therapeutics, cloud labs/automation, DNA synthesis, organism engineering platforms, and bio-based chemical production. The sheer breadth of technologies being developed can be seen by comparing Bolt Threads (who make high-performance fibres and fabrics) to Pivot Bio (who develop new fertilisers).

So the field is hot, the competition is building, you’re maybe thinking about possibly looking at a start-up. Why should you go into synthetic biology? There are several major opportunities driving the sector. DNA synthesis costs are rapidly decreasing, just as the desire for synthetic DNA is jumping up. To sweeten the pot, increased funding (both from private investors and public grants) is becoming available for good ideas. A number of incubators have also sprung up to help ease the transition from ‘good idea’ to ‘unicorn’ – be they industry-supported such as JLabs, Illumina Accelerator and OneStart or private equity raised such as Y Combinator or IndieBio.

Every opportunity has its flip side, of course, and there are challenges that need to be overcome. Scaling your idea from the lab bench to a respectable company is difficult, particularly when dealing with fiddly techniques. Biological systems are ridiculously complex, causing problems both for researchers and for the regulatory bodies who control market access. Biosafety fears are also on the rise, look no further than the GMO regulatory challenges within Europe.

So there are opportunities and threats, potential fortunes to be made and fiery bankruptcies to avoid. Synthetic biology is a new field with major potential, and one which is already reaping dividends for the earliest entrants. Are you interested in jumping into the fray? Want to learn more about the field, the best practices, and the hard lessons to be learned?

Be sure to check out SynBioBeta SF 2016 – Fuel Your Passion for Engineering Biology, October 4th – 6th at the South San Francisco Conference Center.  You won’t be disappointed.


Christopher Harrison

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