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London-based software company Synthace have a mission to transform the way scientists do biology. For the last century, argues Markus Gershater, Chief Scientific Officer at Synthace, biologists have done a lot of experiments manually. But, with four billion years of evolution behind it, biology is too complex to continue working that way.
“As we get more ambitious with what can be done with biology, such as new gene therapies and cancer immunology, the complexity is going up and up,” he says. “Humans can only address this complexity to a certain degree with our hands and brains, so – in the future – we need to turn to powerful digital tools.”
Synthace’s award-winning Antha software aims to give biologists intuitive control over their robotic lab equipment, without the need for arduous programming. The biggest applications are to researchers working in the pioneering fields of synthetic biology, and to those developing new therapies for cancer and genetic diseases.
As Gershater explains, the hope is for complex biological experiments to become as easy as using an iPhone, which effortlessly coordinates GPS, Wi-Fi and other hardware through a simple user interface. And, with that in mind, Synthace have joined a collaboration with Microsoft, Princeton University and UK gene-therapy specialist Oxford Biomedica. The Station B project, as it’s been named by Microsoft, aims to create software tools to automate all aspects of the engineering and design process of synthetic biology.
“Microsoft is at the core of creating digital tools, but these tools need lots of complex data to make them work,” says Gershater. “What our software does is drive down the cost of producing those datasets by automating processes in the lab, so Oxford Biomedica, for example, can address the complexity of the gene therapies they make.”
Yet, despite their success, Synthace, founded in 2011, weren’t always a software company. They began life as a service provider, helping optimise clients’ biological processes with the help of automated robotic equipment. However, they soon realised that it was difficult to get existing software to run complex experiments at the speeds they needed.
“We had the opportunity to make software and it was a much better fit for what the market needed,” he says. “But it can be quite difficult to pivot that strongly and go off on an adjusted route to market.” It was here that the UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund was able to help. “The seed investment helped us to pivot to become the company we are now.”
UKI2S backed Synthace and showed solid support through additional rounds of funding. “The continued support was a real help to show solidarity,” he says. “When you’re a start-up, you’re trying to move very fast, so – if existing investors have faith and want to invest more money – it’s a signal to new investors that your existing team is working well.”
As a shareholder, UKI2S has been active in looking for potential opportunity and contacts. “It’s a complex product we make and in a complex market, so it’s important to have a wide network of investors and partners to draw upon,” he says.
Today Synthace is already working with a dozen companies in biotech and expects that to grow as the benefits of automating biological R&D become more apparent. “I’m a firm believer that the benefits seen in our lab will transfer across the industry, and we have ambitions to become a sizeable and important provider of new technologies to the biotech industry, which is massive,” he says.
Supporting high potential, but high risk early-stage technology is what seed funds are there for, he says. And, in the case of Synthace, it is paying off.