The warm, friendly and collegiate vibe that characterises SynBioBeta refused to be dimmed by the inevitable switch to a virtual format. But this time around, the positive energy was infused with a steely urgency – influenced by pressing global imperatives like food and sustainability and heightened, of course, by the pandemic.
Business success from world-changing science.
This is the fifth year we’ve attended the Global Synthetic Biology Conference to get a dose of the sharpest ideas and thinking in the field. The stimulating mix of engineers, investors, innovators and entrepreneurs is a great strength of the event. As usual, it showcased an eclectic range of subjects and applications as people all over the globe continue to develop ideas for harnessing the power of biology.
As the presentations, debate and networking came to a close on Thursday, I sat down with the Cambridge Consultants team to capture our immediate reflections on some specific trends and highlights…
Agriculture and food
This sector is proving to be a bridgehead for synbio products to get to market. Companies are starting to make a big impact with novel foods such as the Impossible Burger that move from animal to plant-based ingredients – with all the environmental benefits – yet retain the expected taste and mouth feel. This segment looks as if it could spearhead more general acceptance of products developed using synbio techniques and shows how quickly companies can scale.
Sustainability and climate change
There was a lot of emphasis on topics such as the circular economy, sustainable materials and mitigating climate change. SynBioBeta is based in San Francisco, and the current climate situation in California gave a strong sense of urgency to find ways to rethink materials and their manufacture.
The technology hub of the world is struggling, and this gave a strong emotional edge to the discussions. On a positive note, I detected plenty of optimism in the conversations I had around the benefits that bionnovation promise – from creating those new materials through synthetic biology to reducing our reliance on fossil fuel-based raw materials and much more besides.
As expected, COVID was a big topic. What encouraged us was the way the synbio community has responded with many companies pivoting to support strategic efforts to beat the disease – such as enabling truly mass testing. It also highlighted the interesting trends in biology R&D, with companies doubling down on their use of in-silico design tools while away from the lab and finding creative ways to keep labs running with social distancing.
The keynote this year was focused on the public perception of synthetic biology and other sessions pinpointed public policy and the role of the media. It is good to see science and business taking this subject seriously and paying appropriate attention to how their work is perceived by the wider world.
Automation and AI
Back in 2018, we published a whitepaper: Building the business of biodesign. It described the need for better in-silico approaches – that is experimenting with computers or computer simulation – for designing and predicting biological systems. We’re now seeing this need starting to be met with various companies using simulation tools to remove the trial and error from designing biology. This is evidence of the transition of synbio to an engineering discipline as these tools fall into place.
Inevitably AI and machine learning are a key part of this – biology is fearsomely complex, and these approaches allow us to grasp the complexity. People are also realising that automation means much more than physical automation such as robots. The real gains come from automated design and analysis tools, such as other engineering disciplines use.
Health and wellbeing
There was a little less emphasis on health at this year's meeting, which could reflect the move of different health disciplines to absorb synbio into their own processes. Synthetic biologists are no longer the niche group in health that they may have been several years ago. There was however some excellent progress in areas like microbiome therapeutics, with companies such as Synlogic and Novome giving updates, and also in the field of cell therapies with Senti and Caribou.
There were some fascinating discussions around neuromodulation, and understanding the biology of the mind, but of course the biggest focus was COVID-19. The synbio world has been leading the efforts to defeat the Sars-CoV-2 virus with everything from collaborative testing and surveillance techs through to novel vaccines and production platforms. It's impressive to see how the sector has been able to very rapidly adapt to the emerging threat, and a testament to the passion and drive of synthetic biologists to put their skills and capabilities to good use.
We’ve seen some big changes in the last five years. Back in 2016, there was huge creative effort going into long-term vision. This creative effort is now being channelled into the realities of delivering and overcoming the obstacles. Synbio is growing up and getting ever more relevant to the everyday. This was also shown by the number of later-stage investors engaging: the early-stage pioneers are still deeply involved but it’s no longer their preserve. The vision is still there, and the challenges are now tangible. The sense of urgency grows ever stronger.
That’s all for now but look out for further articles as we use SynBioBeta 2020 as the springboard for more insights and conversation. I also plan to discuss the great networking software that helped this year’s virtual format go with such a swing. Meanwhile, do drop me an email if you’d like to talk about any of these topics in more detail.