The air of disbelief among attendees of Built With Biology (formerly SynBioBeta) this year was tangible. For many of us this wasn’t just about attending a conference in person after almost three years – for some this was their first international trip since the before-times. As John Cumbers put it, “you can sense the oxytocin in the room”. While SynBioBeta 2020 was certainly a good example of how to do a virtual conference well, the real thing was very different. Not least because Cumbers was only, in fact, attending as the founder – not the CEO. Frank Tate took over the position in 2020, and personifies the change of direction that this organisation is taking. Is synthetic biology really any different from music? Can you differentiate a hit song and an award-winning Nature paper?

Prior to the official start date, a group of attendees visited Neri Oxman’s exhibition “Nature x Humanity” at SFMOMA, a minimalist display of the plant and animal worlds combined with architecture, interior design and fashion. As you enter the room, a moth wing-like structure towers above you. An older, slightly decomposed version of the same structure is seen peeling off itself outside. The benefits of biodegradable buildings are less certain to me as the skeleton is still made out of metal – but the concept leaves room for speculation. Imagine a music festival where your tent would turn into fertiliser for next season’s grass…

Neri Oxman is a perfect example of the results of collaborating between disciplines, using biology as a tool. Having trained as a doctor and an architect after serving time in the Israeli air-force, Oxman is now a professor at MIT Media Lab, with a research group titled Mediated Matter. Described as “collaborating with nature’s construction workers”, Oxman demonstrates how you can retrieve silk from living silkworms, or use E.coli to form complex 3D structures out of photopolymers. Bacteria-driven manufacturing is a new one for me to observe, and the structures showcased in the museum bore similarities to the highly-folded texture of the large intestine and other large surface area organs. Regulation of innocuous bacteria such as these for medical device manufacture might not be as difficult as it initially sounds, and this type of texture is desirable in many areas of device design.

Biotech enthusiasts with a new energy

After visiting this exhibition, we were fortunate to be given a tour of IndieBio, self-described as “the first VC to put a $2 million biotech lab in [their] office”. Aside from the breathtaking artwork across the wall (inspired by the collaboration of HAX and IndieBio under SOSV), this tour highlighted a meaningful new addition to the BWB 2022 line-up – Race Against The Clock. As we introduced ourselves, I realised some of my fellow attendees were still in high school. Some had travelled from Canada or South America. An unusual demographic for a premium conference run in the Bay Area.

A group of three young women were introduced to Alex Kopelyan, senior director and partner of IndieBio, and expressed how excited they were to meet him and visit the premises after reading the book Decoding the World. This enthusiasm for biotechnology had a new energy with the influx of a younger, fresher generation of scientists and technologists, and this carried on into the remaining days of the conference.

Race Against the Clock, funded by Ginkgo Bioworks and Schmidt Futures allowed 500 people the necessary financial support to travel to BWB and stay in Oakland. Removing this barrier to entry meant that high school, undergraduate and postgraduate students alike, self-employed or otherwise, had the chance to be a part of this three-day biology bonanza. What’s more, these individuals were proactive and passionate – seeking out meetings in order to ask thoughtful questions about the industry and gain advice from successful, seasoned folks they were interested in. It was humbling to be sought out for my knowledge and insights. A brilliant dimension was added to the event through this new group, and I hope this programme continues to grow and thrive. Can you imagine getting to go to SynBioBeta when you were barely out of A-level biology? It would have blown my mind, and I am so happy that this generation will have access to this community from such an early stage.

The only problem with all this excitement post-COVID was that it was very difficult to sit down for too long. Despite a vast line-up of interesting and accomplished speakers, the extroverted nature of this community meant that most of the energy centred on the exhibition hall itself. What makes this conference special is the interactivity of the displays… whether it’s playing with a protein model in VR or eating some mycelium-based bacon (fried to order). There were bioreactors chugging away throughout the day and animal-free squalene freebies. If you had any question as to what it means to build with biology, these were answered as you walked around the exhibits. The most insane and gorgeous display, however, was without a doubt from Light Bio.

The nature of the display required it be in a closed room off the main hall. This exhibit boasted multiple rows of glowing bioluminescent flowers, causing a beautiful cloud of fragrance to hang in the room, perfectly matched to relaxing background music and a slight red glow to allow people to see where to walk. It took a while to adjust, but once you stopped looking at your phone and your pupils dilated enough – wow. An indescribable feeling, where all the stuff you saw in Biohackers and Avatar is suddenly just there in front of you.

The future of agriculture

Those running the exhibit included the CEO and his wife, Keith and Monika Wood, who took great care over ensuring that attendees got the full experience of their “Firefly Petunia” display. And yes, you can sign up to get one of the plants when they’re ready to launch commercially – maybe not the cheapest Mother’s Day gift, but truly awesome to behold. So what can we learn from this? Ying Sun, a BWB volunteer who recently published her work on extremophyte species in Nature Plants, weighs in on the wider picture:

“Light Bio demonstrates how we can change the conversation surrounding genetic engineering by helping to pivot the viewpoints from fear and anxiety, to wonder and possibility. Similarly, my paper highlights how we can leverage the diverse lifestyles within the plant kingdom to identify mechanisms that help our crop plants increase yields in changing climates.

With these examples, we open the door to new ways for using plants to help humanity, to grow more food, build more materials, and produce what we need in a cost effective way.”

Although having access to ZBiotics (a GMO-based hangover prevention probiotic) did make the week much easier to get through, even with the eight-hour time difference, I felt like I’d had three conferences worth of networking. We forgot how much easier we could connect without the obstacles of a screen, a mute button and attention-seeking animals/children/houseplants <delete as appropriate>. And with these connections come new opportunities and overlaps. We discover those sweet spots where Cambridge Consultants can play a significant part in driving these amazing companies – and with them, the entire biotech ecosystem – forwards.

Our recent announcement regarding our partnership with The Engine (built by MIT) shows that we are well-placed deep within these groups, instead of reaching in from the outside. We are all entrepreneurs in our own way at CC – passionate technology-driven folks who treat their projects like their own company, but are lucky enough to be part of a bigger infrastructure that allows us to do so while bringing in the collective resources of 800 people and global facilities to drive the efforts forwards.

To summarise, I will end with the words of BWB volunteer, Dayanne – an incredible biology student from Universidade do Estado do Amazonas. Dayanne organised the trip to SFMOMA, helped DJ the afterparties, and still showed up at 7am to perform her voluntary duties. “I grew up in the middle of the Amazon rainforest – how could I not study biology?” This industry is about connecting with and learning to work with the environment that surrounds and supports us in every waking moment. We are built with biology after all!

For more details of Built With Biology, check out attend and sign up for their newsletter to stay informed. There are two further conferences this year, in London, UK (July 20-21) and Houston, TX (October 4-5). Feel free to reach out to me if you want to know more about why we are part of this community, and what we can do to support the uplift of these ground-breaking technologies.

ellen simmons
Ellen Simmons
Senior Biomedical Engineer