March 29, 2016

UK Synthetic Biology: Basic Research Moving Towards Commercialization

Synthetic Biology
Life Sciences Minister, George Freeman MP, visited SynbiCITE at Imperial College London, the UK innovation and knowledge centre for synthetic biology, to announce the release of the UK Synthetic Biology Strategic Plan 2016 — Biodesign for the Bioeconomy.

In the past few decades, the commercialization of basic science research is continually gaining traction. This trend is happening across several fields of study. The move toward commercialization has been particularly notable in synthetic biology, with the UK and the United States as the two key players.

The ‘Eight Great Technologies’ identified by the UK government in 2013, included synthetic biology as an area in which the UK is and would become a leader. In an effort to further its role as a leader in the synthetic biology community, the UK has seen the creation of many centres of synthetic biology. Two years ago, the government invested £12M in synthetic biology facilities, including £10M for five centers of DNA synthesis.

In 2013, three new synthetic biology research centres also opened, in Bristol, Nottingham, and a partnership between Cambridge and Norwich with funding from Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The total investment for these centres was over £40M.

It doesn’t stop there as the pounds just keep rolling in. Last year, another £40M established centres in Edinburgh, Manchester and Warwick.

While universities are still funding blue skies research, that is, basic science, there are a lot of funding schemes that support universities to work with businesses. With basic science, “there is a very long road for applicability, whereas if you work in synthetic biology, it is awfully easy usually to support what the value of the research might be,” explains Liz Fletcher, Manager of the Centre for Synthetic and Systems Biology & Research Development Manager at The University of Edinburgh.

She explains that the government has been trying to address “that despite the fact we are one of the top producers of high quality research in this country, we don’t derive economic benefit from that because so many of the ideas are commercialized elsewhere.”

Synthetic biology is a young discipline, existing since around 2000.

The components needed to carry out synthetic biology have been developed since then, including the critical technologies of DNA sequencing and the ability to write DNA. Only in the past few years has the field reached the point where translation into industry is possible.

In addition to university initiatives, there are collaborations between industrial partners and academic institutions, such as the leading SynbiCITE. Co-director of the Center, and Professor of Biomedical Systems Engineering at Imperial College London, Richard Kitney, said, “At SynbiCITE, our task is to roll out industrial translation in synthetic biology right across the UK.”

“The UK has a great track record of supporting translational research and investment,” said Chris Jones, Lead Technologist at Innovate UK. In light of recent significant investments, the coming years promise to show developments and advances in synthetic biology.

In addition, the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council published last month the UK Synthetic Biology Strategic Plan 2016 — Biodesign for the Bioeconomy that focuses on accelerating industrialization and commercialization of synthetic biology.

Take a glimpse into this transition, important for science and business alike, as SynBioBeta talked to some UK-based experts, such as Chris Jones, ‎Lead Technologist (Biosciences) at Innovate UK, to discover more about these topics.

Who are the key players in this trend?

Jones: There are two main groups, ‘technology’ companies delivering new capability to the marketplace and ‘end users’, companies with existing brands and market access who deliver to consumers. The former is a combination of spin-outs from the academic technology base and new companies formed by ex-industry professionals with experience and vision. It’s important to recognize the difference between two groups as their needs are very different. For example, University spin-outs often have access to resources from their host institution but need experienced management whereas industry spin-outs need revenue from day one but already have reputation and credibility.

How is your organization specifically contributing to the move toward commercialization?/ How does the research in your center specifically benefit from moving basic research toward commercialization?

Jones: Although Innovate UK plays many roles in the Innovation sector we have two main themes, Fund and Connect. We have Funded companies to perform research projects through competitions, some informed by specific technology challenges and some open to all, many of which are collaborative and involve either multiple businesses or an academic partner and are a major tool in technology transfer.  Connection can occur as part of our Funded collaborations or through workshops and sandpits organised by Innovate UK or our partner organisation, dedicated to the Connect function, the Knowledge Transfer Network. We also use our detailed understanding of the industrial and technology landscape to inform Government strategy and investment.

What does this enable/why is it important?

Jones: Technology companies ‘professionalize’ the transfer of advanced technologies and their ability to raise finance means their growth rate can more easily match that of the sector.

For more insight into the research and opportunities commercialization has within the  synthetic biology community, be sure to attend, SynBioBeta London 2016 – April 6th thru April 8th, to hear talks from over 60 industry leaders.