How synbio must evolve to be successful

The emerging field of biodesign has famously led to apples that do not go brown, meat burgers that don’t require livestock and spider-less silk. Biodesign is also widely harnessed to develop life-changing drugs, create new materials and manufacture non-polluting plastics. But, after a couple of decades of industrial biodesign, what’s holding it back?

We asked a group of industry leaders, researchers and influencers. Here’s what they said…

Public perception of biodesign is disproportionately restricting investment. Industries have been self-regulating to minimise risks to the environment and human health from genetically modified (GM) organisms. However, GM crop producers did a poor job of explaining the benefits and risks of biodesign in the 1980s and scare stories persist.

Biodesign has been stuck in the lab. As a scientific discipline now finding its way into industrial applications, biodesign is carried out by independent groups of researchers; each using their own systems, methodologies and terminology. This makes it hard to regulate, acts as a brake on commercialisation and raises questions over IP ownership.

Biodesign has not yet convincingly demonstrated value. The decision to use biodesigned materials in manufacture will be driven by cost, performance and brand, and not the clever technology used in design and manufacture.

Biodesign will increasingly create the world around us, just as mechanisation did in the 18th century and electronics did in the 20th century. Eventually the idea of designing DNA to engineer cells with special properties will be taken for granted by manufacturers and consumers. So to get there, what needs to happen?

  1. To change public perceptions the biodesign industry needs to learn to communicate the benefits and value proposition to consumers. This message will be easier to project as biodesigned materials and fuels become more widely established but it can’t wait for a new generation of engineers and journalists to come along.
  2. The value of biodesign in manufacturing will only be realised when it finds its place in the wider ecosystem. The industry needs to shift from a ‘one company does it all’ model to a network of specialised companies contributing to an integrated, efficient and competitive supply chain. An important part of this will be standardisation of biodesign specifications from R&D right through to manufacturing.
  3. In order for biodesign to flow ideas from the lab into commercial reality it must be accessible to non-experts, with safety assurance and return on investment being the central factors for building convincing business cases.

Read more about our vision for biodesign in 2023 in our 2018 workshop report.

Tom Collings
Programme Manager

Tom leads projects in our medical technology and engineering biology divisions. With a background in mechanical engineering and product design, Tom brings together teams of engineers, designers, scientists and strategists to develop first-in-world products for our clients.