Guest post by Nicolas Krink
Berlin became for two days the beating heart of synthetic biology, as the who is who of this growing industry met for the first SynBio Markets 2019 event. It was organized by BioMarket Insights and partners like the Max-Planck Network for Synthetic Biology (MaxSynBio), and the German Association for Synthetic Biology (GASB). The selected location of a historic power station has set the atmosphere for what should become the mindset – synthetic biology will become a leading industry. With a mixture of keynote talks, panel and roundtable discussions, and plenty of time for networking opportunities, the agenda provided a variety of formats. Overall, the SynBio revolution stakeholders came from the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Denmark and even from Japan, China, as well as the USA and Canda – giving an overwhelming picture of the global efforts in SynBio.
Definitely, Berlin is the startup hot spot in Germany; however, the density of SynBio startups is still reasonably low. Besides startups, several mature companies like AMSilk, Bayer, and BASF joined the event, showing their growing interest in synthetic biology. Further, all major SynBio companies were on stage: Intrexon was introduced by Randal Kirk, Twist Bioscience by Emily Lepruost, Novozymes by Gernot J. Abel, and Ginkgo Bioworks by Jess Leber. All speakers gave insights into their company’s business.
Many SynBio-based products still have difficulties entering the market. Thus, Intrexon’s CEO Randal Kirk addresses this gap with a call for tangible products that offer benefits to people. Emily Leproust highlighted the need for fast and cheap DNA synthesis to foster the acceleration of synthetic biology to provide biological solutions to fight hunger and disease. Synthetic Biology is a manufacturing industry, as the partnership of AMSilk and Airbus on building planes made of spider silk, demonstrates. Detlev Konigorsko, Innovation Manager at Airbus, raised an important and exciting point of expectation management. In general, but especially in Synthetic Biology, we need to ensure that the rained expectation can be met with the reality of science.
Within the SynBio Stars session, the event gave rising startups a stage, among them MiProbes, a Berlin-based SynBio startup. Max Mundt, co-founder of MiProbes: “Synthetic biology is now more accessible from a technological perspective as well as in terms of funding. This will give rise to new game-changing companies.” Besides MiProbes, that is addressing food safety, additional startups were on stage pitching their businesses: like the production of cannabinoids by Synbionik, DHAP production by BioC3, therapeutical viruses by GEEN, a tabletop DNA printer by Kilobaser, or the combining of artificial intelligence and synthetic biology to enhance metabolic engineering by SilicoLife.
The sustainability aspect of synthetic biology-based products is gaining more attention. Different viewpoints in the talks and company presentations highlighted the UN sustainable development goals, and how they can be addressed using synthetic biology. Pressing questions ranging from global food supply to rethinking of a carbon-based industry can be answered with biology as Gernot J. Abel of Novozymes highlighted. Startups like C16 Biosciences are providing product-based answers, in their case, by producing palm oil in yeast, as their CEO SharaTicku presented on stage.
The often discussed question of the success of biotechnology and synthetic biology was addressed by the speaker from Leaps by Bayer, Ingo Klöckner, who provided a new perspective. Together with the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, they aim to develop a new performance indicator for investments. This indicator should reflect not only the financial success but also its impact on the sustainable transformation of an industry.
Lastly, I want to add some final, personal remarks. It’s fantastic that synthetic biology as a field is open to everyone interested and that the term is still inclusive. However, for me, as a scientist, it is essential that SynBio doesn’t become an undefined label only to attract investors. I noted that many companies joint the SynBio Market event and told stories with a SynBio perspective – but the final product avoids the term. SynBio will change the way we produce nearly everything. Let’s be transparent (even if it’s sometimes difficult) and communicate the SynBio success stories, even to the final customer.
Nicolas Krink is a postdoctoral researcher in Prof. Victor Sourjik’s Department for Systems and Synthetic Microbiology at the Max Planck Institute in Marburg, working on metabolic engineering and genetic networks in yeast. He dedicated his professional life to Synthetic Biology at the bench and beyond by co-founding the German Association for Synthetic Biology (GASB) and being the head of the steering committee. Together with a great team of synthetic biology enthusiasts he is responsible for the vibrant SynBio activities of GASB, ranging from conferences to liking science, industry, and startups, as well as to education and policymaking. You can find out more our about Nico and GASB by following them on twitter: @NicoKrink and @gasb_synbio.