Synbiosys: Better than glass

We had the pleasure of working with Jose even before we started DSV: he joined us to help get things ready before the January launch. He was about to complete a PhD in raytrace modelling where he had built a large scale photoelectrochemical reactor to split water (aka, an artificial leaf) in addition to using refraction to increase the yield of algae farms. Somehow, in the meantime, he had also collected experience in several of Imperial’s spin-outs including Hydroventuri (micro-hydro energy), DeltaDot (label free imaging) and Duvas Technologies (air quality detection) where he led sales in Brazil.

Jose really wanted to build green energy technology, particularly more efficient solar panels and step beyond the incremental progress of research in this area. He quickly formed a tight team with Alexandre (background in biofluid dynamics) and they explored hundreds of ideas, sometimes killing them at the rate of one per day (!) as they would discover time after time that the economics couldn’t make sense, or the technology was just too far in the future. These included advancing his original work around improving algae yield, smog reduction techniques, using buildings as hydro batteries, mopping up oil spills with bacteria and even solutions to prevent the decline of the bee population.

Then, late one day, we sent him an InnovateUK / DSTL call for proposals to produce transparent armour that could be lighter and stronger than glass. The spark was ignited. Together with 5 other members of the cohort, he worked intensively to come up with solutions and ultimately settled on a synthetic biology based approach, and submitted the grant a just few minutes ahead of the deadline. Two weeks later he received the email, he’d been awarded £76,000 of funding!

It’s clear, that’s a good start!

Once again, this is where things started to go wrong. Not everyone was as passionate about spending the next 7–10 years on this project. Then, it turned out that there was a competitor with a significant head start using a very similar technology. Back to the drawing board. Ultimately, this setback proved an enormous blessing, as it forced Jose to rethink the choice of technology and go out and speak to experts in those areas. The new approach (confidential for now) should actually be lighter, stronger and cheaper than glass across all applications which require a degree of impact resistance, significantly expanding the potential market.

Now that Jose had a reasonably clear vision on how to make the technology work, he set about finding potential cofounders with the right complementary skill-sets. The first, Gareth Tear, was introduced by a Principal Investigator that Jose had approached for feedback. The second, Gianmaria Bullegas, was found via an email call to the entire department. Many people responded, but Gianmaria had exactly the right attitude and technical value-add, which they discovered as they worked up ideas over the following weeks.

The team are now entering the lab to turn theory into practice and we’ll update this post once the results are in!

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