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Seattle’s synthetic biology space is booming: here are 6 reasons why

When you think of synthetic biology, Silicon Valley might be the first place that pops into your mind. But take a look some 800 miles up the coast, to the Pacific Northwest: Seattle, in addition to being arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the country, is climbing the ranks of biotech. Here’s why.

  • The Seattle biotech industry boasts top-notch researchers. 

More and more academic researchers in Seattle are lending their expertise to industry – or becoming entrepreneurs themselves. Case in point: the Seattle-based protein design startup Arzeda, which in 2018 made the prestigious Global Cleantech list of the top 100 private companies dedicated to clean technology. The company was founded by computational biologists Alex Zanghellini, Daniela Grabs, Eric Althoff, and David Baker, who revolutionized enzyme design in 2008 with their research at the University of Washington (UW) in collaboration with UCLA, Scripps, Fred Hutch, and an organic chemistry lab at ETH Zürich. They decided to use their research to solve real-world problems in agriculture and commercial biotech by replacing thousands of harmful everyday chemicals with sustainable, affordable alternatives. The Arzeda team members – most of whom hold a doctorate in chemistry, biochem, or microbiology – do this by designing customized proteins and enzymes, which can be tailored for any purpose under the sun, without the need for fossil fuels.

Arzeda

Arzeda’s proprietary technology combines targeted computational enzyme design and protein optimization with state-of-the-art metabolic bioengineering to create entirely novel designer cell factories capable of industry-scale chemical production.

The UW Institute for Protein Design (IPD) in particular is a gold mine of industry- and global health- minded biotech.The Open Philanthropy Project gave its largest ever scientific research grant, over $11 million, to the IPD last year for the development of a universal flu vaccine. Academics at the IPD, among them IPD director and Arzeda co-founder David Baker, have used the research generated there to create and bolster several other majorly successful private companies in the area. These include A-Alpha Bio, Cyrus Biotechnology, PvP Biologics, Sana Biotechnology, and Neoleukin Therapeutics. These companies do just about anything – whether it’s developing treatments for celiac disease, delivering engineered cells to human patients, or finding new drugs using lightning-fast software.

  • Seattle biotech is a team sport.

Seattle takes all kinds – whether you’re a biologist, chemist, data scientist, electrical engineer, or something else entirely. The UW Center for Synthetic Biology (CSB) is another perfect example of an interdisciplinary hub for scientists from all fields. Their number one message: Collaboration. Director Eric Klavins is an electrical engineer whose lab combines biology and engineering to re-design communication systems between genes, cells, and even entire organisms. The CSB is also home to biochemist and Arzeda co-founder David Baker, as well as a whole slew of award-winning chemical engineers, genome scientists, pathologists, biochemists, and cancer biologists working together to make their synthetic biology research the best in the business.

Eric Klavins

Professor Eric Klavins’ current projects include synthetic multicellular systems with engineered bacteria and yeast, and laboratory automation.

The UW is a consistent leader in research, and they credit this to their culture of collaboration, both within UW and with partners around the world. Medical research is getting in on the action, too – at Seattle Children’s, for example, researchers are teaming up with colleagues at UW and the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center to use nanotechnology to study brain tumors.

  • Beer lovers welcome!

Seattle is a paradise for craft beer lovers, boasting dozens of breweries and counting – but this beloved beverage isn’t just for drinking. Beer is also at the root of Seattle’s biotech culture. Arzeda’s technology comes straight from the same process used to make beer: The fermentation of yeast. By altering the process in different ways, synthetic biologists can ferment renewable resources like sugars and agricultural waste, and transform them into any number of valuable chemicals. Designed using cutting-edge computational biology, these chemicals can then be produced on a huge scale for things like biofuels and sustainable rubber.

This relationship works both ways. Microbiologist and molecular geneticist Sean Sleight, founder of the Sleight Beer Lab, is using his 20+ years of lab experience (and, of course, a passion for beer) to collaborate with brewers to help them make unique, high-quality beers. He previously worked as a strain engineer and manager in the synthetic biology group at a Seattle-based algae biofuels company – now he’s studying to be a full-fledged beer sommelier.

Beer lab

The beer lab is run out of Sound Bio, a community lab for startups and biotech enthusiasts in Seattle, WA.

  • Seattle is a hub for women in science and tech.

Seattle’s biotech industry has been a front-runner in the push for supporting women in science and industry. The organization Women in Bio (WIB) is made up of professionals at some of the top pharmaceuticals, biotech companies, non-profits, and academic institutions in the area, and their sponsors include leading Seattle-based companies like Juno Therapeutics, Omeros, and Adaptive Biotechnologies.

The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) is another Seattle-based organization dedicated to engaging women and girls in STEM, including the burgeoning biotech industry, and boasts a number of corporate sponsors including Elsevier and MedImmune, the biologics R&D arm of the biopharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. The entrepreneurial space for women in Cascadia improves every year, as more and more female startup founders are getting funding from more female investors. The program onBoarding Women – run by Deloitte, Perkins Cole, Spencer Stuart, and the Madrona Venture Group – focuses on getting women in the Pacific Northwest on corporate boards, particularly in tech.

  • Tech giants are getting in on the action.

The world needs biology research, and tech giants know it. Seattle area-based tech giant Microsoft, for example, has become more and more involved in computational biology in the last decade, joining in the fray to research molecular programming, synthetic biology, and stem cells. Their interdisciplinary teams do everything, whether it’s programming biological devices, designing molecular circuits made of DNA, or using computation to see how the immune system recognizes viruses.

In a collaborative startup called Aquarium, Eric Klavins at UW teamed up with data giant Intel to design a smart analytics system, called the Smart Wet Lab Assistant, which tracks research being done in the laboratory. Their aim is to make synthetic biology research reproducible, digital, fully optimized, and error-free – something that would normally be a huge ask for us fallible humans. The system would allow for cloud-based research data and protocols that are much more reliable than the old standby of lab notebooks.

  • For Seattle scientists, opportunities abound.

The already-booming technology industry in Seattle – think big names, like Amazon and Microsoft – makes it a natural place for scientists to join in the fun, and the possibilities are endless. According to real estate reports, Seattle’s tech job growth has outpaced every other hub in the country over the last few years, including the Bay Area. Scientists from Seattle can find success at a multitude of private companies like Juno Therapeutics, Bellwether Bio, Fenologica, or Lumen Bioscience, not to mention the many startup spinoffs from the IPD at UW, where they can do anything from developing front-line cancer diagnostics to making wine without grapes.

These private companies are all about teamwork too – the molecular tech company Zymergen, which recently expanded from the Bay Area to Seattle, develops trailblazing technologies for all kinds of industries, from agriculture to healthcare. They do this by merging the talents of genome scientists, microbiologists, software engineers, and data scientists into one big dream team. One of their investors, Bioeconomy Capital, has put millions towards companies paving the way for modern biotech. Managing Director and physicist Rob Carlson has joined forces with mechanical engineers, other scientists, and strategists to identify the companies that will thrive in this fast-growing market.

When all’s said and done, Silicon Valley may be the most well-known spot for biotech, but there’s no denying that Seattle’s synthetic biology space is another top dog. The city ought to start digging out a brand for itself – the Silicon Sound, perhaps?

Natalie Slivinski

Natalie Slivinski

Natalie is a researcher-turned-science-writer born and raised in Seattle. She received a Master's with Distinction in disease biology from the University of Leeds, UK. Apart from a specialization in virology, she has a special fascination with antibiotic resistance, allergies, prehistoric life, marine zoology, ecology, evolution, and bugs. She also has a soft spot for mental health and child development. A former interpretive guide at Yellowstone National Park, she is also a Science Communication Fellow at Pacific Science Center, where she uses a giant Plinko board to illustrate how herd immunity works. Raised on Zoobooks and PBS, Natalie hopes to work with the likes of Science, National Geographic, and NOVA, where she could ignite the same sense of wonder that drove her to become a scientist. She finds her spark in translating scientific research for the insatiably curious.

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