Building and Using the Tools to Redesign Life

Synthetic biology is the foundation for the new economy

Prime Movers Lab
5 min readJun 14, 2021


Last Wednesday we sat down with three synbio juggernauts to hear their thoughts and predictions for the synthetic biology sector. With the backdrop of Ginkgo Bioworks $15b SPAC deal with Soaring Eagle Acquisition (NASDAQ: SRNG) and Zymergen’s IPO(NASDAQ: ZY) it was a perfectly timed, informative conversation on the current state and future potential of the industry.

Rob Carlson, Managing Director at Bioeconomy Capital is one of the godfathers of the industry. He literally had a seat at the table when the term “synthetic biology” was coined and is the namesake of the Carlson curve. Bioeconomy Capital has done well in this current wave of liquidity, while Rob and his partners nurture and fund the next one.

Michael Clay, Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer at Infinome Biosciences. Mike got his PhD at the University of Georgia and did his post doc at Stanford, where I first met him. Since then, he’s basically collected equity at SynBio startups like they were baseball cards, working at Codexis (Nasdaq: CDXS), LS9, DuPont Pioneering, Zymergen, Intrexon and Inscripta before founding Infinome Bioscience. They are the world’s first lean bioengineering company dedicated to unlocking the infinite potential of the genome leveraging their complete genome engineering technology stack.

Todd Peterson, Founder and Principal at GenApex Bio, has a storied career that spans startups, early stage investing and executive positions at large corporates such as Invitrogen, Life Technologies, and Synthetic Genomics.

We had an enthralling fireside chat starting off with a first hand recounting of the original coining of the term “synthetic biology”, an homage to synthetic chemistry. The term is now a point of debate and misinterpretation by many. But the overall potential to global economics cannot be understated.

Synthetic Biology uses engineering tools to adapt both organisms and enzymes to produce products of value. In the early days, biofuels was of intense focus. These have not produced the commercial success many had hoped for, but the tools and infrastructure that were developed have supported broader development in the field. As Todd Peterson said, “companies came and went.” We now can use genes in a more systematic fashion and are getting even more sophisticated with CRISPR and epigenetic tools. The fields focus is broadening from commodity products to therapeutic and other high value, low volume applications.

The industry has come to terms with regulation. This trend is reflected in Rob Carlson’s vision of the field and in Bioeconomy Capital’s investments, “we didn’t like FDA risk early in the fund, but are fine with it now,” highlighting their investment in Lumen Biosciences. Their positions in Zymergen, Riffyn, Rooster Bio and Synthase are reflective of the robust tools the industry is creating, but many are still being developed. “We are engineering bio as we find it, we should move to engineering biology as we want it,” which is what Rob said is at the core of Arzeda and Microbyre, two highly innovative startups. Bioeconomy is focusing on high impact opportunity that can get to market fast with limited or clear regulatory paths. “Overall, synbio outperforms synthetic chemistry and our goal is to kill oil” states managing directory Carlson.

The largest applications are pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and industrials. Mike Clay highlighted why he thinks these are the largest applications, but also highlighted that with the breadth in biology, “nothing is off the table.” Flavors and fragrances, materials, clothing, industry products, biopesticides. In his mind, synbio is a complement and extension to chemistry, with incredibly interesting properties at scale. At Infinome Biosciences they are taking a broad, industry-wide perspective and are bringing to market various tools and illustrating their utility. “If you don’t have the tool” states Clay, “it will take you a lot longer to get to market.” It is not really like computer science, you cannot just drop in the code for things and have it work. The engineering approach we use is design, build, test, and the test stage takes the longest. One of the huge upsides Clay sees is that product space is not limited to what chemists can do, nature has massive advantages in exploring the nearby (and far off) chemical space. He goes further to allude that synbio will totally remake the small molecule industry, shepherding in a new wave for biopharma.

AI will accelerate the industry. No stranger to massive industrial markets, Todd Peterson mentioned that the opportunities are massive, but challenges remain. “The field needs acceleration of the design, build, test cycle and AI, machine learning and genetic tools are really pushing this, but there is still a lot we do not know.” Peterson also discussed our dependence on the organisms we use in the industry and the interplay between primary metabolism (what it needs to live) and secondary metabolism (what is required to make product). The closer genetically the organism (or “chassis” using industry jargon) is to the product the more straightforward the engineering and scale up. With deep industrial experience, Peterson commented “often not appreciated are the risks and difficulties to scale up the organism; with novel microbes this is a bigger issue.” Peterson sees partnerships becoming increasingly important, enabling various organizations to better compete leveraging their strengths. From an entrepreneurial and investment stand point, timing is almost perfect.

Redesigning entire ecosystems is the future. Rob Carlson, one of our co-investors in Upward Farms, predicted that the company is just at the beginning of value creation. In Rob’s mind Upward Farms represents the synthetic biology company of the future: rather than engineering organisms or enzymes they have engineered the entire ecosystem. “They have demonstrated ecosystem engineering and ecosystem manufacturing powered by electricity, this opens things to us that cannot even be imagined right now.”

Synthetic biology is the foundation for the new world. In tech and engineering you walk into this world where everything works. In biology we do not have the same type of infrastructure…but that is changing! And we at Prime Movers are helping define this future. You can watch the complete discussion and our panelists’ predictions for the future on Youtube.

Prime Movers Lab invests in breakthrough scientific startups founded by Prime Movers, the inventors who transform billions of lives. We invest in companies reinventing energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, human augmentation, and agriculture.

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