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SynBioBeta London 2017

  • Posted on 12 April

“I think the biggest innovations of the twenty-first century will be at the intersection of biology and technology” – Steve Jobs. The innovation and potential expressed in this thought was made real by the synthetic biology researchers, investors and enthusiasts that flocked to London last week for the much anticipated SynBioBeta London 2017 event. Two days packed with insightful talks, lively panels and excellent networking opportunities left both delegates and speakers alike feeling hugely optimistic about the future of this technology. Industry growth was a strong theme throughout the event.

Industry growth and excitement

As Day One progressed, growth, innovation, creativity and problem solving were constant themes. This enthusiasm is exemplified by the number of UK SynBio-using companies rising from less than 30 in 2011 to more than 100 by the end of 2016. A key driver in this expansion is the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition, in which 5,600 participants from 42 countries participated in 2016. Megan Lizarazo, Vice President of Operations at iGEM, accurately described the competition as an “engine of teamwork and technology”.

As with any new technology, the synthetic biology industry is experiencing the same challenges as other early stage science and tech sectors have seen. Lizarazo also commented on the need to “bridge the valley of death between scientific research and commercialisation”, illustrating how so many companies fail at this crucial juncture and how engineering biology can be the key to success. Elsa Sotiriadis, programme director at RebelBio, agreed that the ‘valley of death’ was not impassable, remarking that by communicating wisely “we can transform the valley of death into a cradle of life”.

Regulation

Regulation, as ever, was a hot topic, particularly considering the current political climate of Brexit. The innovation in this sector is one of its greatest strengths, however, as Tim Fell, CEO of Synthace, pointed out, regulators are struggling to keep up with the technology. However, the need for regulation with regards to GMOs cannot be denied. As Joyce Tait, Director of the Innogen Institute, wisely commented, “safety, quality and efficacy require set standards and a framework” when developing new GMOs.

Engineering biology and food

Discussions of regulation inevitably came hand-in-hand with the application of engineering biology to food. Food shortage is becoming a greater concern by the day; Joyce Tait commented “there is a serious problem, and we now have a serious opportunity to make things better” via the application of engineering biology and the creation of GMOs. However, this must be approached with care. Mark Lynas, Environmental Writer, stressed that “people care about the introduction of modernity and superficiality into their foods”, emphasising that it often all comes down to the public’s perception of GMOs, which is then reflected in the politics and subsequently in the regulation. Thomas Bostick, Senior Vice President, Environment Sector, Intrexon, stressed that community engagement is key to overcoming GM fear – a view echoed by many at the conference – particularly when attempting live-release of GMOs.

It’s all about the people

As ever, the need for the right people, with the best skill sets and talent, was expressed time and again. Herman Hauser, Co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, made the interesting observation “I have seen a lot of start-ups with C-class teams and A-class technologies fail, while those with A-class teams and C-class technology succeeded.” Thomas Bostick listed the 4 key characteristics he feels a professional in this sector needs as: leadership, communication, teamwork and passion. Thomas instructed the crowd “do not communicate so people understand, communicate so they cannot misunderstand” – wise words that are crucial as this field advances into realms unfamiliar to the public. “Being at the intersection of anything is really hard, and bringing together such diverse groups for solutions in synthetic biology requires strong leadership,” continued Bostick.

Finding the right talent may be complicated in the future by the difficulty in sourcing talent from abroad, due to changing policies on free movement. As Lord David Prior, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, commented in discussion on Brexit, “We also must win the global battle for talent.”

Looking ahead

Drew Endy, Associate Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford, made the amusing - yet thought provoking - observation that, 19 years from now, it will cost the same amount to synthesize the DNA encoding an entire human genome as to attend Stanford for one year, due to the opposing financial trajectories of these two activities. This illustrates just how far Synthetic Biology has come, and how much it still has to offer. The path ahead will be challenging, with the “need to build bridges between sectors, disciplines and ideologies”, believes Christine Gould, Head of Next Generation Engagement, Syngenta.

“Synthetic is a synonym for fake, and since we live in era of fake news, data, expertise, it’s hard to be in a ‘synthetic’ community”, observed Stephan Herrera, VP, Evolva. This is just one of the challenges facing the burgeoning field of synthetic biology. However, as Herman Hauser said, “there is a veritable tsunami of really exciting technology” out there, and with that driving innovation forward, you cannot help but be excited about the future of this sector.”