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How to make synbio more accessible: an interview with Helene Steiner


Transforming a cool idea or a breakthrough technology into a mature application is challenging. Open Cell is aiming to facilitate that by providing space and a supportive environment to biotech startups. I had the chance to interview Helene Steiner, Open Cell’s co-founder and an active participant in several synbio initiatives.


Kostas Vavitsas: It’s been almost a year since Open Cell opened its… containers to the community. How is the experience so far?

Helene Steiner: It all started with the idea to build the first public research center for consumer-facing biotechnology start-ups. We wanted to emphasise testing ideas in real life. Less talking and more doing!

A year ago, we started with just a few empty shipping containers. In the first weeks the only thing we owned was a chair and lathe we used as a makeshift desk! We had some wonderful support from collaborators Biotop and SynbiCITE to help build our first bio-laboratory.

Since then we grew to over 40 containers. The most exciting thing has been watching the community grow. Each Open Cell resident added a unique skill set and background to the community. From mycelium insulation materials to nanorobots for personal diagnostics to systems that make flies more efficient pollinators and a whole range of biomaterials.

Kostas: Community labs and DIY yourself biology is a controversial topic. How can we ensure responsible and meaningful contributions to synbio by the community?

Helene: Our goal is to reduce barriers to entry to biotechnology but to maintain the highest standards when it comes to ethics, health and safety and the responsible use of technologies. Each resident at Open Cell has to go through a H&S and ethical check monitored by a diverse group of advisors from industry, research and the community.

We think that public engagement and the inclusion of the wider community is crucial. Science and technology communication is the key for creating impactful and sustainable solutions and products.

We started a monthly event series called “Open Thursday” which enables anyone to safely learn and engage with biotechnology in the form of talks, workshops and exhibitions.

Education is a key for a healthy bioeconomy which will not only be assembled by academics. Open Cell is working with local schools & the initiative Bubble&Squeak to give over 400 school kids between 6-12 years access to STEAM education and facilities to learn about biotechnology.

Read More: Do synthetic biologists need a licence to operate?


Kostas: No moving to Cell-Free tech. What is wrong with cells?

Helene: Nothing is wrong with cells, we love them! But they are highly complex and to design and test a specific recombinant protein takes a long-time (days), repeated trial and error, along with expensive facilities and experienced operators to do this work.

Cell-Free works with the translation/transcription machinery of a cell outside the cell by extracting this. Without the cell-wall you can add your gene of interest directly into the cell-free mix to test a potential protein production in under 1h.

Cells are great because they can reproduce themselves billions of times but this also means that you can’t easily work with them outside a laboratory.

Cell-Free can’t reproduce meaning you can safely use them outside of the lab, (No cell – no reproduction) and this helps lower the entry barrier to biotechnology by providing more accessible and affordable tools to more people. Cell-Free could be a very useful tool for enabling low cost protein prototyping and to produce affordable products which integrate cell-free systems such as diagnostics.

Read More: Cell-free protein expression in Vibrio natriegens


Kostas: How easy it is to talk and collaborate with people from different backgrounds? Any tips to scientists trying to work with entrepreneurs or IT scientists working with biologists?

Helene: One of the biggest challenges we experienced to collaborate with different disciplines are the different timeframes. Design and IT are very fast moving with often quick turnover times, biology takes its time and is much harder to reproduce.

It is important that each collaborator understands one anothers challenges, business model and the desired output. For example, academic researchers seek publications with the aim of receiving grant funding. Designers seek exhibitions and aim to develop and ultimately sell products…

The foundation for a successful collaboration is like in any kind of relationship: communication.

Part of this involves simplicity. It is vitally important for scientists to learn how to simplify their language. Jargon and acronyms create a significant barrier to your potential collaborator. Try to answer these questions with language suitable for a primary school classroom or your grandmother. What is it what you are doing (on a daily basis)? How can I contribute? What are your goals? What could this become in the future?


Kostas: You are involved in a multitude of projects. Where do you find the time for it, and how does a typical day of yours look like?

An overview of Open Cell from London metro

Helene: Open Cell is my main focus at the moment and takes over the majority of my time. Out of this effort many collaboration and projects evolved such as teaching a biomaterial platform at the Royal College of Art, Bixels a toolkit for STEAM education and the FOOD: Bigger than the plate exhibition with the V&A.

Each project shares a similar goal: making biotechnology more affordable and accessible!

There is no typical day. Like most start-ups every-one of us has to pull-up their sleeves and take over all aspects of the company. One day I have to learn how to get drainage and water into an abandoned side, another I sample and grow skin bacteria for a museum, another you discuss with the council how the infrastructure has to evolve to support the bioeconomy.


Kostas: In June you’re chairing a “How to dress the world better” session at SynbiTech2019. What can biotech can offer to the retail industry?

Helene: The overarching topic will be sustainability and how new dyes and new materials can contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry. I am very excited about this panel because it will bring quite a diverse range of experts to the table.

Zowie Broach, head of fashion from the RCA, to talk about how to integrate biotechnology in the education of fashion. Sarah Mower, from Vogue, to share the challenges biotechnology company will face to enter the complex fashion industry. And Marie-Sarah Adenis from PILI and Orr from Colorifix to discuss the challenges they are facing to produce and upscale the production to contribute to a mass-production market.


Helene Steiner is a designer and engineer who works at the interface between technology and science. She co-founded Open Cell with the mission to provide affordable lab space to early stage startups innovating at the intersection of design and biology. She is the co-founder of a biotech company, Cell-Free Technology, where she develops computational and biological design tools for proteins and materials and leads the biomaterial platform at the fashion department at the Royal College of Art. She was previously a postdoc research fellow in Microsoft Research Cambridge where she developed biological interfaces. She has been hosted as a visiting research fellow in the Tangible Research group of the MIT Media Lab. She holds a MDes from the Bauhaus University, MA from the Royal College of Art and an MSc from Imperial College London. She has been awarded a Frontier of Science, Kavli Fellowship by the National Academy of Sciences.


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