Synthetic biology and the opportunity within the UK’s innovation landscape
At the end of 2022, I wrote about the opportunity for UK biotech to contribute to the UK’s economic growth agenda and the bright future that awaits if the Government gets it right.
Last week I had the chance to elaborate on what ‘getting it right’ might look like when it comes to synbio (synthetic biology) for human health at a Parliamentary Scientific Committee meeting hosted by Stephen Metcalfe MP. Together with panellists Fiona Mischel, Sara Holland and Joe Healey, we made the case and answered a broad range of questions and comments on how the UK can support the industry and bring the exciting opportunity for jobs, new companies and novel cures for patients to bear.
With her opening remarks, Fiona Mischel produced stats and case studies that show synbio is ready to snowball into a global powerhouse of an industry worth between $2–4 trillion dollars in 10 years time. When we look at the category of synbio for human health specifically, there is a wealth of opportunity — improved drug discovery and clinical translation, better targeting and personalisation of medicines and better access to new classes of medicines in the form of cell and gene therapies. She also went beyond medicine and talked about synbio for cultured meat, production of chemicals and new materials — all of which benefit human health by being sustainable solutions.
The synbio industry thus represents a tremendous opportunity for global transformation. One of the first potential problems we covered in the discussion — with such wide potential, where does synbio find its home in the UK? Which parts of the system are there to support it?
Synbio is inherently a multi-disciplinary initiative. At the innovation stage in academia, this already poses problems; certain funding bodies support technology development — as long as this is not aimed at medical applications, whilst those dedicated to pre-clinical research won’t fund innovation that is focussed on technology development as they focus on basic research with clinical outlook. Our opti-ox technology is a good example. Whilst it has attracted significant investment in bit.bio and now is on track to make a difference for patients, we did not receive any funding from conventional funding sources during its development in academia.
One of the points my mentor Rick Klausner makes is that in an ideal world, governments should support research that tackles fundamental questions with potentially large impact. In contrast, how it is organised today is geared towards funding incremental projects. Here is where ARIA could make a real difference and fund moonshots that have the potential to be transformational.
A good example is our work at bit.bio: we are discovering the operating system of human cells — the combinations of regulatory genes called transcription factors (TFs), that determine the identity and function of human cells. This requires a highly complex and multidisciplinary effort that brings together data science and machine learning, high throughput wet lab experimentation, genetic engineering etc. The outcome is transformative: once we have identified the combinations of TF that define healthy cellular states, we can use them to manufacture human cells at scale for regenerative therapies. So far, a single cell type, namely T-cells, have sparked an entire new industry. Imagine the impact if we could re-recreate every human cell type — and enable treatments for every human disease!
The new reality in science is that we have better tools to tackle more important problems and that this requires a multidisciplinary approach. A shift in mindset is required. And to enable this shift, the event at Parliament itself is part of the solution — as a growing company in synbio for human health, it’s our responsibility to go out and educate investors, lawmakers, potential collaborators, the media on this entire industry. And to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Which brings me to the second important topic we covered -
Enabling entrepreneurs from the research base in the UK
Again, the point was neatly set up by stats and case studies from Fiona on the growth of the synbio industry in other countries. She flagged the USA’s recently announced Executive Order specifically on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing. Also legislation in Singapore, the first country to approve cultured meat, is ensuring it’s becoming a magnet for the companies working on their first products. This Government top down approach creates incentives for entrepreneurialism to flourish. We need to see that same mindset here.
The UK is excellent at fundamental research, less so at commercialisation, and especially poor when it comes to building sustainable companies. It starts with the well-known barrier at the tech transfer infrastructure. The process is fraught with complexities. A common framework that simplifies the process and allows and incentivises entrepreneurs to take risks is needed. We need to learn from the best — Stanford is probably the best example. The UK has one chance — let’s learn from the best!
We need a change of culture
This is as much a top down as a bottom-up issue. The good news is that government is well aware of some of the challenges. It all starts with having the ambition and the confidence that we can build world-leading companies headquartered in the UK.
The world is at a technological turning point — as new industries emerge, the UK needs to be at the forefront. This is the best way to accelerate growth across the UK. Building large companies in the golden triangle that produce real goods will lead to the creation of important business functions and highly skilled jobs across the UK, e.g. in the manufacturing and supply chain.
Instead of starting high tech companies to sell them on, our ambition must be to build companies that can stand on their own legs. It can be done. Examples are Cambridge-based Abcam, a life science leader in the antibody space, and ARM Holding, who supply the chip blueprint for nearly all smart phones currently in use. The fact that ARM today remains headquartered in the UK and now is an independent company is owed to several serendipities. This needs to change. We need a systematic approach to enabling and anchoring such companies in the UK.
And the bold ambition to build world-leading companies will need to drive further changes — accessing untapped sources of capital to support late-stage business growth, opening public sector procurement to UK based growth companies are all part of the solution.
Finally, we need to make sure there are role models, particularly women and other minorities who are spinning out companies, trailblazing this entrepreneurial mindset. The depth of skills and expertise in the UK relevant to synbio provide a tremendous starting point.
Synbio needs the government to step up and to translate this momentum and innovation into legislation and infrastructure. To lower the barriers of translation, incentivise growth stage funding, infrastructure and buildings with lab space, and to support manufacturing. I’m optimistic that the vision is there, to become a scientific superpower. Events like these highlight how synbio can be a critical part of that vision.