The UK SynBio Industry - what does the future hold?

  • Posted on 21 February, 2020

Professor Richard Kitney, Co-founder, SynbiTECH, discusses the UK synbio industry post-Brexit.

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks. First, James Field, Yvonne Armitage and I were the guests on Evan Davis’s BBC Radio 4 programme The Bottom Line. The programme is about exciting new areas of industry and business, and how they are developing. Worth a listen, I think.

Then, the whole debate on the development of the new synthetic biology industry in the UK is hotting up. Post-Brexit, there does seem to be developing interest in the Government in supporting synthetic biology/engineering biology. I believe that the driver mother for much of this debate relates to the statement in the UK Government’s report – Growing the BioEconomy (2019) – where the authors state that they expect the U.K.’s BioEconomy to grow from £220 billion to £440 billion by 2030. Our local estimate is that this would require the synthetic biology/engineering biology industry, plus the existing biotech industry in the UK, to grow by around £70 or £80 billion over the next 10 years. The question is how will this be achieved? In the UK we have over 150 start-ups and SMEs, many of whom are doing well – examples being LabGenius, Puraffinity, Synthace and Prokarium.

What is key to the development of the new industry are appropriate business and funding models. It is essential when developing a new industry that it is de-risked by public funding over the first one or two decades. The DARPA program in the United States is a very good and highly successful example of this approach. This is an important aspect of the concept of “longtail funding” where public sector finance supports the development of an industrial field, by supporting the injection of private sector funding. As the field develops and becomes “de-risked” the amount of public sector funding decreases. At last year’s SynBioBeta Conference (the major synthetic biology/engineering biology conference in the United States) Eric Schmidt (former CEO of Google) said that Google would probably not have survived without the appropriate public sector funding (through DARPA and other government programs). This is why in the UK equivalent programmes are, in my view essential if we are going to grow the new industry at the rate required. It is, therefore, interesting to note that Dominic Cummings, amongst others, now seem to be seriously considering a British version of DARPA called ARPA.

All of this and many other aspects of the development of synthetic biology/engineering biology will be discussed at the forthcoming SynbiTECH 2020 conference - to be held in Central London on the 26th and 27th of October.

Hope you can join us.