Synthetic Biology: Fuelling the Growth of the Bioeconomy

Monday 8 July 2019

As a patent attorney with a multidisciplinary background, I work with inventions that span a number of fields, from mechanical devices to telecoms, and software to bioinformatics. At the end of June, I attended two conferences which between them covered a large range of technologies. However, I was particularly interested in how companies presenting at the synthetic biology conference SynbiTECH 2019 and those presenting at Cambridge Wireless International Conference, where AI, software, 5G and IoT innovations were discussed, had more in common than I initially imagined.

Synbio and software companies share many of the same problems, one of the main being, how do you convince the public that your technology can be trusted and that the company is acting in your best interests? For software companies developing AI, the public are concerned by the possibility of a robot uprising (which, thankfully, is a long way from happening at the moment), while for synbio the public still think about “Frankenfoods”. Biotech also has reproducibility problems and it can be difficult to obtain public trust if experiments and results cannot be reliably reproduced.

It was also interesting that companies at each event were keen to solve the same real-world problems. For example, one of the tracks at the Cambridge Wireless Conference focussed on agriculture and the session began by noting that agriculture is the least digitised industry today. Speakers in this session discussed how smarter data collection and analysis could lead to more sustainable livestock breeding; how indoor or vertical farming combined with sensors and control techniques could produce food more efficiently and closer to the points of food consumption; and how real-time monitoring could enable farmers make the best decisions for their crops. It seems that many of the technologies we already have in our homes, offices and cities are now being deployed to improve the output of farming.

Techniques for improving agriculture were also discussed at SynbiTECH.  In a world where 2.5 billion people depend on agriculture for a living, synthetic biology techniques are necessary to develop seeds that will have higher yield using less water and other inputs, that will cope with volatile weather, that will be disease and insect resistant, and will satisfy consumers’ changing tastes (e.g. strawberries and avocados all year around). Many companies are also developing (and selling – look out for the Beyond Meat Burger and Impossible Burger) cell-based meats that look and taste like real meat but have less of an environmental impact. As the world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, perhaps the combination of high-tech and biotech solutions will ensure the agriculture and food industry can match the rapidly growing demand.

Some companies at SynbiTECH discussed how they began in synbio, but are now hardware or software companies providing solutions for synbio. For example, Synthace began as a bio-process service provider and now are a software company that has developed a software platform that enables biologists to plan an execute complex, multi-factorial experiments that result in a hundred-fold increase in experimental throughput. Similarly, Oxford Genetics began as a company that produced DNA building blocks, but now provides DNA design and automation platforms for mammalian cell engineering. Other companies are providing hardware to synbio companies, rather than a service. Evonetix, for example, are changing the traditional approach to synthesising DNA using a unique silicon chip that has addressable pixels or reaction sites and combines this with thermal engineering to control the sequence of DNA oligos that are synthesised at each site on the chip. Nuclera are developing a DNA printer for the lab that again breaks away from the traditional approach to write DNA.

Over at Cambridge Wireless, an academic researcher discussed their development of connected biosensors that can detect the spread of crop diseases faster than farmers might visually detect disease in their fields. This may allow farmers to take early and targeted action, e.g. spraying only those crops which are affected. The sensors here combine biological sensors to detect the disease with communication technologies to provide feedback to farmers in real-time.

As noted at SynbiTECH, synthetic biology is growing rapidly globally – 2018 saw 98 synbio companies raise $3.8 billion in capital, investments and market offerings, compared to $1.8 billion in 2017. Hermann Hauser (one of the founders of the chip design company Arm, and now a venture capitalist) said at SynbiTECH that he considers synbio to be one of four areas of research that are particularly interesting and investment-worthy at the moment. With funding pouring into the area, it will be interesting to see how the bioeconomy and indeed multidisciplinary approaches to solving problems continues to develop.

At Appleyard Lees, regardless of whether you’re a biotech company developing hardware/software or a high-tech company providing solutions for the biotech industry, we have a large and experienced team of attorneys who can help you to protect your innovation. Contact us for a confidential conversation.

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