Biotechnology is accelerating. Nowhere is this more evident than in the frontier of synthetic biology, which views DNA as a programming language for creating new goods like petroleum-free plastics, spider silk jackets and perfumes with the aroma of extinct flowers.
In the past ten years, the synthetic biology industry has seen investment in excess of $12 billion. This includes close to $4 billion in the last year alone, with major funding coming from established biotechnology firms like Bayer and Novartis, heavy-hitting investment groups such as SoftBank, DCVC, and a16z, and startup accelerators Y Combinator and IndieBio.
In the coming weeks, I will be breaking down synthetic biology’s broad sectors and interviewing many of its key players. Until then, here are five sectors of this fast-moving industry that you need to know about:
1. Food and Agriculture
Synthetic biology is poised to change what we eat and how we grow it.
One of the dirtiest secrets in agriculture today is the $212 billion fertilizer industry. Making synthetic fertilizer consumes between one and two percent of the world’s total power, and massive fertilizer runoff is poisoning rivers, lakes and oceans the world over.
This fertilizer facility in Vijapur, India, relies on high-pressure tanks at temperatures that would melt lead to make food for plants. Welcome to the new bioeconomy. Natfert / WikiMedia
Synthetic biology has a fertilizer alternative. Pivot Bio, based in Berkeley, California, has pioneered a new way of fertilizing crops at scale without relying on a polluting chemical process. The firm has harnessed the power of soil microbes to create a living product that farmers can apply to soil alongside seeds. Once planted, these microbes take nitrogen that’s freely available and give it to plants.
Pivot Bio microbes provide farmers with a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizer. Using these microbes can help lessen the environmental footprint of agriculture. Pivot Bio
Late last year, Pivot secured a $70 million Series B from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a collective backed by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and many others. Joyn Bio, which is developing a similar bio-based solution, also secured a $100 million series A in 2018 from its parent companies, Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks.
Synthetic biology is unlocking new food options, too. Since launching in 2011, the plant-based meat company Impossible Foods has raised over half a billion dollars. Finless Foods and Memphis Meats are remixing biology even further by growing animals cells without the animals; the first is looking to save our oceans by growing fish tissue indoors, while the latter is taking on the highly polluting beef and leather industries.
2. Consumer Goods
The market for consumer goods in the United States alone is estimated to exceed $600 billion per year. Synthetic biologists are making inroads with innovative products across a number of sectors.Take Geltor. This California-based startup is creating advanced proteins for the beauty market. It launched HumaColl21™, a skin-care collagen product, in Korea earlier this year. The product contains actual human collagen, bio-designed and grown via fermentation. This new form of collagen is the first of its kind, eliminating the need for animal harvesting.
“The product is beating the expectations by almost 200 percent,” said Geltor CEO Alex Lorestani. “But beyond that, it was a big hit with the bloggers and influencers who love the fact that we’re replacing animal products with a sustainable solution.”
Geltor co-founders Alex Lorestani and Nick Ouzounov are applying biology to the personal care product market, producing collagen skin products that are engineered for better performance. Geltor
Synthetic biology’s innovation in the consumer goods sector is more than skin deep. Zbiotics has launched a biodesigned probiotic hangover cure. Conagen is working toward a new generation of alternative sweeteners. Codexis is also rolling out new zero-calorie sweeteners, as well as a broad portfolio of enzymes that its customers are using across the food, beverage, and biopharmaceutical sectors. As of July, Codexis’ annual product revenue was up 68 percent.
3. Chemicals and Materials
A surprising fraction of the materials and chemicals sold around the world are still derived from petroleum, but a new generation of biomaterials is coming online to replace them.
Japanese biomaterials company Spiber, which is growing spider silk via precision-engineered microbes, has raised close to $200 million, making it one of the countries best-funded startups to date.
In the US, startups like Ecovative are partnering with giants like IKEA and Dell to deliver sustainable, biologically derived packaging material. As researchers become more adept at building with biology, thousands of new goods with smaller carbon footprints and enhanced physical properties will emerge.
4. Automation (Lab & Organism)
Automation is a key enabler of the synthetic biology industry’s rapid growth. With it, even small companies are doing more with less.
Automation in synthetic biology takes two forms: the standardization of complex laboratory workflows, and the introduction of robots and other machines to faithfully carry them out.
Two giants who are taking the guesswork out of biological design are Ginkgo Bioworks, valued at $1.4 billion, and Zymergen, which secured $400 million from the SoftBank Vision Fund in late 2018. Both help customers bring products to market faster by standardizing the “design-build-test” of industrial microbes.
If synthetic biology is the picks and shovels of the biotech gold rush, then companies like Ginkgo Bioworks are the picks and shovels of synthetic biology itself.
Robotics firms like OpenTrons and Berkeley Lights are also popping up to service the synthetic biology sector. Most of the work inside a synthetic biology laboratory boils down to moving small volumes of liquid from one container to another — robots can do this faster and more accurately than humans.
“Biotechnology can solve some of the world’s biggest problems, but not enough people have access to the tools needed to work with it. That’s what we aim to change,” says OpenTrons CEO Will Canine.
5. Reading, writing and editing DNA
Nearly every application of synthetic biology requires reprogramming the code of life. That is why breakthroughs that make it cheaper, easier and safer to read, write or edit DNA reverberate throughout the entire industry.
Twist Bioscience, which went public last year and since doubled in market value, is fueling the industry with cheap and plentiful DNA. They recently partnered with researchers at Microsoft to work out whether genes could someday replace hard drives. Other firms, including Molecular Assemblies, are in hot pursuit as they develop whole new ways of stitching together As, Ts, Cs and Gs. Colorado-based Inscripta is about to launch a high-throughout, CRISPR-based genome engineering machine. With it, hurdles to wide-spread gene editing will begin to shrink.
These and other breakthroughs make the synthetic biology space a must-watch.
Disclaimer: I am the founder of SynBioBeta, the innovation network for the synthetic biology industry. Some of the companies that I write about sponsor the SynBioBeta conference (click here for a full list of sponsors).