An Introduction to Start-Ups in Synthetic Biology

When did you first hear the phrase “synthetic biology”? Was it many years ago, or did it just happen when you clicked on this blog?

Synthetic biology — or SynBio — involves the engineering of biological systems to create useful products or functions through thoughtful tinkering with DNA. Commercial applications span several industries: energy, chemicals, materials, pharma, food, agriculture, diagnostics, probiotics, antibiotics, and gene therapy — just to name a few. According to one analysis from 2014, the global SynBio market was valued at $3.0 billion in 2013 and is estimated to reach $38.7 billion by 2020.

Fuels and SynBio Start-ups v1.0

In 2004, I wrote to the Houston Museum of Natural Science about my desire to help cure what I called “The Black Plague of Black Gold.” I was a high school junior in the Energy Corridor of West Houston and wanted to help end our reliance on petroleum.

Higher Value Products and SynBio Start-ups v2.0

The apparent commercial success of SynBio fuel start-ups influenced my decision to join a SynBio lab in graduate school in early 2011. Once there, I realized that microbes could be engineered to produce essentially any of the numerous products that are ordinarily derived from petroleum. And in order to provide a path towards complete independence from petroleum, it is important to find sustainable routes to make these products in addition to fuels. The use of microbes that are engineered to efficiently convert renewable inputs to products at high yields is an elegant strategy for many products. However, based on rough economic considerations, I gradually began to question whether fuels were practical targets for SynBio start-ups.

SynBio Start-ups Taking on Other Challenges

The discipline of chemical engineering focuses on developing or improving processes that produce chemicals. Despite having that background, I have been interested in the new generation of SynBio start-ups that are pursuing commercial applications beyond chemical manufacturing. For example, Sample6 brings SynBio into the realm of food safety by offering advanced detection of pathogens. SynLogic develops therapeutic microbes for patients with inflammation and metabolic diseases. Synthorx produces novel proteins for life science applications by expanding the genetic alphabet.

Pathways Ahead for SynBio Start-ups

Thus far in 2015, several SynBio start-ups have made headlines after earning investments from venture capital firms. For example:

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Aditya Kunjapur
PLOS Synbio Field Reports

Postdoc, Church Lab @HarvardMed. @MIT ChemE PhD 2015. Elite at limbo. #synbio #energy #eship #vegetarian #longhorn