For many people, London does not sound like an appealing summer destination. But I was excited when I landed in Heathrow on Sunday last week, looking forward to two days full of synthetic biology.
SynbiTECH 2019 was organized by the Imperial College synthetic biology hub, SynbiCITE, in London on June 24 and 25. The conference aimed to provide a forum to synthetic biology experts from research, industry, commercialization, and policymaking, to discuss the advancements in the field and the future of the field.
Jason Kelly, CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks gave the first keynote presentation, and what a start it was! Ginkgo is involved in a multitude of projects, has built a significant biofoundry capacity, and has heavily invested in microbial strain engineering.
John Cumbers, founder of SynbioBeta, gave an overview of the global synbio industry (top country in investments and companies is unsurprisingly the US, followed by the UK). Some highlights of this talk are: the realization that synthetic biology is not a multi-billion dollar but a trillion dollar industry; SynbioBeta has a BetaSpace spinout that plans to hold an event on the moon (in 2030 if I recall); and a futuristic video on a biotech-driven world.
The talk that impressed me most was from Claire Bergkamp, Sustainability & Innovation Director of the Stella McCartney luxury brand. The fashion industry has a heavy carbon footprint and consumes a lot of resources. Fast fashion and industry practices are damaging the environment and create a lot of waste. Stella McCartney implements sustainable practices and new materials (including the yeast-produced silk from Bolt Threads).
There is a wind of change in the fashion industry and there are several companies that try to introduce sustainable options for manufacturers. Companies such as Pili Bio and Colorfix aim to replace fabric colorants with biotech-based alternatives, thus reducing the environmental impact of collecting (the dye) and coloring (now resource intensive and polluting). Open Cell organized an exhibition on biodesign, with some mind-blowing projects on new materials and creativity. I could write another blog describing the exhibition, but fortunately Marianna Limas has already posted a great account, together with pictures and reflections.
The panel discussions were a good opportunity to address a point from multiple perspectives. The panels on bioeconomy, innovation and technology, developing synthetic biology for the society, biodesign in fashion, and funding opportunities in synbio gave a good overview of the aspects surrounding synthetic biology from the point of project conception to commercialization and impacts to the economy and society.
Of course, there were several synbio startups. There were too many to mention all, but I was intrigued by Theolytics, Leaf Expression Systems, AdvanceSyn, 3F Bio, Opentrons, and Nuclera. Together with the more established Microsoft Research, Twist Bioscience, IDT, Syngenta, we had a good representation of synbio companies in different areas.
I think SynbiTECH 2019 gave a good overview of the synbio landscape in the UK and globally. Some topics and application themes have a particular focus (biotech dyes, lab-grown meat, enzymatic DNA synthesis, automation) and will be in the spotlight for the years to come. I particularly liked the focus on sustainability, open science and inclusiveness – I was particularly happy to see the Kenyan government delegation who presented their own challenges and their point of view in several topics. This conference is a good networking event too. However, the science behind the stories was a bit absent – one would get the impression that everything happened due to magic or (worse) money poured into a problem. Science and technology development is central to the development of the synbio industry and the bioeconomy industry.
I enjoyed the conference, and I am looking forward to next year’s event. In the next few weeks I will post some interviews of conference participants, so stay tuned!