SynbiTECH 2019: Innovation, Investment and the Engineering Biology Revolution

Oliver Sexton, Investment Director, and Pablo Lubroth, Investment Manager, UKI2S, share their thoughts on the recent SynbiTECH2019 conference in London.

The global engineering biology sector is growing rapidly; 2018 saw 98 engineering biology companies raise a record $3.8 billion in venture capital, new IPOs, post-equity investments, and secondary market offerings – in comparison to $1.8 billion in 2017. SynbiTECH2019, a two-day conference that took place 24-25 June in London, was the ideal opportunity for this growth and innovation to be showcased. The event saw companies, delegates and speakers from around the world come together to discuss the key opportunities and challenges for building a multibillion-dollar engineering biology industry that will contribute to the fast-growing bio-economy.

The SynBio Revolution

Both delegates and speakers reflected on the current atmosphere of inspiration and excitement in the industry. In the opening Keynote, Jason Kelly, CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks, animated the audience with the idea of a ‘engineering biology revolution’, stating “we are inevitably going to use biology to make everything”. Jason explained how engineering biology should not be considered in the same way as the healthcare or agricultural sectors – it is better compared to the electronics sector: a versatile tool that can, and will in the future, be used for everything. Jason made the bold prediction that “the 5 largest companies in the world 10-20 years from now will be engineering biology companies”. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but Jason believes – and many at the conference agreed with him – that eventually this technology will underpin every industry that exists today. Jason closed his talk stating “our Moore’s Law is just starting”, illustrating the future growth yet to come.

Entrepreneurs and innovation

With a thriving industry such as this, a consistent stream of talent is essential. “At previous European engineering biology events there have been fewer young and inspired entrepreneurs, eager to contribute to the field, that are typically seen at events in the USA. It was refreshing to see so many young researchers and students at SynbiTECH2019”, commented Pablo Lubroth, Investment Manager, UKI2S. Having a high number of the younger generation interested and engaged with engineering biology is a further step towards propelling the growth of this industry.

The proof is in the products

Day two focused heavily on the myriad of products that can be derived from engineering biology, with panels and company presentations covering diverse application areas including biodesign, healthcare, foodtech, agritech, materials, chemicals and therapeutics. The presentations reinforced the comments made on day one that every industry will eventually be transformed by engineering biology. Presentations by CytoSeek, a company using cell membrane augmentation technology to unlock the potential of next generation advanced therapies, and Linear Diagnostics, creators of a platform technology which has the potential to perform rapid, accurate, cost-effective diagnostic testing without the need for laboratory facilities, were just two of the presentations that stood out. Both companies have been supported in their development by UKI2S.

High Impact SynBio Investment

As with any industry, innovation cannot thrive without investment. A panel chaired by Mike Ward, Chief Content Officer, Informa Pharma Intelligence Insights Portfolio, and including Oliver Sexton, Investment Director, UKI2S, addressed the opportunities in engineering biology for high impact investment.

In 2012 the UK engineering biology sector saw an influx of public funding from multiple sources including BBSRC, EPSRC and Dstl, with support from the then Minister of State for Universities and Science Lord David Willetts, and received £126m government funding in 2013 in response to the ‘A Engineering Biology Roadmap for the UK’ report. Since this time however, public funding for engineering biology has fallen. George Katzaros, Co-founder & Partner, Farm Street Partners, commented that “there is no point starting something and not following through” – this is a “golden opportunity for the UK to step up” and fund engineering biology projects that will have huge social impact.

Oliver Sexton, Investment Director, UKI2S, commented after the event, “investing in companies at an early stage and following through with this commitment as the company develops is key. This is what we do at UKI2S, and it was excellent to see companies supported by the UKI2S presenting at SynbiTECH2019, including Synthace Ltd, Cytoseek and Chain Biotech Ltd”.

Public sector funding is essential

The ‘Synbio Unplugged…’ one-to-one sessions were a highlight of the two days, during which leading industry figures were given the chance to share their insights on key issues currently effecting the industry. Of particular note were Hermann Hauser, Amadeus Capital Partners, and Lord David Willetts, Resolution Foundation.

Hermann Hauser continued on the theme of investment in engineering biology, commenting that the UK does not have a spin out problem, it has a scale-up problem – “We need 5 times more investment to keep our position”. He also touched on the point raised earlier, that the UK need to be better at following through on investment: “Fundamental technologies such as engineering biology will take years to come to fruition and need constant support.”

Lord Willetts shared his thoughts on the potential of the engineering biology industry in the UK and the importance of government backing to ensure its true potential is realised. Willetts went on to say that government backing the engineering biology industry is essential in order to maintain the UK’s leadership in the sector post-Brexit.

The science of the future

It’s clear from SynbiTECH2019 that there is extensive innovation, excitement and support for engineering biology and its potential applications. Many commented that engineering biology may be the key to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future. Increased funding and government support will be key to realising this potential.