Last week I attended SynbioBeta 2016 at Imperial College London, the premiere synthetic biology conference for the industry. Attracting academics, industry and investors, the event was well attended with well known featured speakers in the synthetic biology field
Synthetic Biology - a misnomer?
Synthetic biology has been described as “an interdisciplinary branch of biology and engineering combining various disciplines from within these domains, such as biotechnology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, systems biology, biophysics, computer engineering, and genetic engineering”. Descriptions of synthetic biology depend on whether the discipline is approached as a biologist or as an engineer. Originally seen as a subset of biology, in recent years the role of electrical and chemical engineering has become more significant. Two featured speakers, Tom Knight of Gingko Bioworks and Ron Weiss of MIT both have backgrounds in computer science (indeed Tom is known as the “Godfather of Synthetic Biology”). So perhaps synthetic biology as a name for the field is a little misleading. However my favourite “alternative” name (as coined during the investor round table at the event) was “next generation molecular biology”, no surprise given my background!
John Cumbers, founder of SynBioBeta, opened the event, telling us that in Europe alone there is now 99 synthetic biology companies, with $722 million raised in 2015. The UK Government has invested £10 million in the Rainbow Seed Fund, a £24m, early-stage venture capital fund dedicated to kick-starting UK based technology companies. This is the only UK fund dedicated to synthetic biology, and the Rainbow Seed Fund has been working closely with academics and industry to back high growth companies using synthetic biology technology.
The investor round table at the event, with Veronique de Bruijn from IcosCapital, Karl Handelsman from Codon Capital, Kathryn Owen from Imperial Innovations and Oliver Sexton from the Rainbow Seed Fund participating, was a highlight for me. One particularly engaging topic was “corporate venturing”, with the panel in consensus about the benefits a corporate partner could bring, such as expertise in the field, however caution should be exercised in respect to the effect such a partnership could have on a company’s exit strategy. Oliver noted that big corporates generally want to see a product with some development before coming on board, making this strategy unavailable for many early stage companies. Another topic of discussion was synthetic biology platforms versus products; as innovative as a platform (for example genetically engineering an organism to make a biofuel) can be, of course a business model has to show there is a market for the product of such a platform to attract investment.
It was great to see Lorraine Kerr and Susan Rosser from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre For Mammalian Synthetic Biology in London too. I wrote a blog back in October about the launch of the Centre as part of SynBioBeta Activate!
Tom Knight told us there is so much we don’t know, even about the biology of a simple cell such as Mycoplasma. The emerging field of synthetic biology will not only allow us to simulate biology for better understanding and design, but also provide an innovative foundation from which to grow a substantial new business sector.
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