When it comes to the commercial side of synthetic biology, we often think about small startups working on wild new technologies and powerful new data tools. However, one of the notable aspects of a new report on synthetic biology from Global Industry Analysts, Inc is the interest in the field coming from well established organizations. This isn’t a surprise, but it is something that we often overlook. The synthetic biology efforts of these larger companies simply get lost among all the different components of greater operation. In contrast, startups are generally working on a single aspect of synthetic biology, so all the attention is focused on those projects. Additionally, there is something appealing about the scrappy, innovative startups making proclamations about the next revolutionary thing.
As valuable as the startup scene may be, it is also important to pay attention to projects going on within larger corporations. In many cases the work being carried out may be incremental rather than dramatic, but these slow evolutions are just as important for advancing technology and creating useful products.
At the same time, the very nature of synthetic biology lends itself to advances that go well beyond just tweaking the margins. If we’re creating new systems from scratch and reengineering natural pathways, we are by definition trying to go big. This is where the entire community, from individual DIYers to huge companies, have unprecedented opportunities to interact and innovate.
Synthetic biology is an exciting field in large part because it is helping to rapidly expand our understanding of basic scientific principles while simultaneously providing new products that improve humanity and nature. This is not at all meant to slight other areas of science. In “traditional” basic research, discoveries are made and added to the larger body of knowledge. Over time some of that knowledge is incorporated into new applications. In other cases, scientists and clinicians may make a functional discovery (i.e., where a drug leads to a favorable response) where the underlying mechanism – the basic biology – is unclear. And finally, in many situations a basic discovery will simply become part of our understanding of nature, without being used for any “practical” application.
Each of these three situations are extraordinarily valuable (and this description admittedly represents a heavy oversimplification), but the strength of synthetic biology is how it can combine discovery with understanding and application. Put in other terms, parallel processing is more efficient, allowing for faster iteration on an idea.
Which brings us back to the commercial aspects of the field. Looking at the GIA report, one sees companies like BP and Cargill listed alongside Synthetic Genomics and ProtoLife. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is also breaking in to synthetic biology, working for the past several years with companies like gevo and LanzaTech on more sustainable aviation fuels. Some of these projects include engineering microbes to improve the final product being pumped into airliners.
The GIA summary points out that a significant driver of the synthetic biology market – like any market – is demand. Civilization is looking for faster production, higher yield, and sustainability in the face of increasing consumption. As a result, the global synthetic biology market is expected to grow at an annual rate of 34.4% to $11.8 billion in 2018 and $16.8 billion two years later. That’s starting from $2.7 billion in 2013. (Those number include estimates from the GIA summary and the 2014 synthetic biology report published by BCC Research.)
In seven years, therefore, this relatively new sector of the bioeconomy is expected to grow by 6x. I am not an economist or business analyst (cell biologist, actually), but it seems obvious that this growth will have to be driven by big advances rather than incremental steps. If that happens, it will be an example of the power inherent to the synthetic biology approach. Standardizing and streamlining design allows for faster progress towards whatever end result is being pursued.
When one looks at the investment into solutions rooted in synthetic biology by large corporations, the proliferation of synbio startups, and the small but notable trend towards DIY bio, a remarkable pipeline begins to take shape. This blog recently reposted an article about the game Nanocrafter. In it, author Carolyn Graybeal stated that “the game is part of a broader goal to enable non-scientists to contribute to synthetic biology research.” In addition, incubators, accelerators, hackspaces, and student-based organizations like iGEM are making synthetic biology available to almost anyone who wishes to be involved.
Taken together, what all this means is that a relatively direct line from individuals with a random biological question to big industrial players is taking shape. This in turn means that ideas from any part of the system can be adapted and applied incredibly quickly. The result? Faster innovation and bigger advances. Of course, reality is far more complex than one wishes it was in a blog post. It’s not as simple as handing an idea developed in a hackspace off to Pfizer, and the system will have to go through some growing pains. However, synthetic biology makes drawing this hypothetical line possible to a greater extent than ever before.