Strain engineering for a better synbio future: an interview with Andreas Meyer from FGen
FGen is a synthetic biology startup from Switzerland. The company works as a contract research organization, offering strain development and protein engineering for companies. I had the chance to interview Andreas Meyer, the company’s CEO and co-founder, and ask about his story.
Kostas Vavitsas: How did FGen start?
Andreas Meyer: Still in an academic environment at ETH Zurich we had several collaborations with industrial partners and our technology platform. At some point these collaborators preferred us to found a company to make IP issues easier to handle. This was something that we already had in mind to do, and that event was the spark that lit the fire. This happened back in 2011. I find it noteworthy that, while we originally come from a synthetic biology lab, we use and market a screening platform.
Kostas: Could you describe a bit your technology and tell us what FGen is bringing to the market?
Andreas: Like probably every scientist in a synthetic biology lab we were eager to improve the Design-Build-Test-Learn cycle and realized that the ‘test’ is often the bottleneck in the experimental approach. So we used cell encapsulation, which is the basis of our so called nanoliter-reactor (NLR) screening platform, to be able to analyze large libraries. The technology is characterized by growing library members in nanoliter-sized compartments, by performing a phenotypic assay for specific properties, and subsequent analysis and selection of candidate strains by flow cytometry. Since products can be retained in NLRs the approach is also feasible for secreted products, which cannot be performed by single cell analysis using FACS. With the NLR platform we can screen up to 1 million cells per day and, thus, surpass multi-well plate systems by orders of magnitude. We collaborate with industrial partners in strain development and optimization and contribute thereby with our expertise in synthetic biology and our unique screening platform.
Kostas: What are the differences between working in the industry compared to an academic lab?
Andreas: In the industry, what you do has to work, and nobody cares how it works. The clients ask for a strain with specific properties and we deliver it. What I miss from the academic environment… well during our projects we find very interesting things from a scientific perspective that we can’t follow up on. There is no time for this and our non-disclosure clauses don’t let us pass the information to other parties that may be interested. So the story ends there which is sad.
Kostas: You use both GMO and non-GMO technologies for your clients?
Andreas: This is true. Companies in the food sector insist on non-GMO strains and processes due to customer demand. In such cases we use traditional random mutagenesis and analyze large numbers with our screening platform. In very few cases we may engineer GMO strains to test phenotypes, and then we do a non-GMO library to pick up a similar strain.
Kostas: Speaking for the synthetic biology industry in general, which areas are the best to go into?
Andreas: Currently, we see better and faster results in the food and feed sector. They already use biotechnology, and we can improve existing processes.
In the long term, material science will develop greatly. New materials, fabrics and textiles… I think synthetic biology can do great things there.
Kostas: Can the biotech industry compete with the fossil fuel industry on producing the same products?
Andreas: We have no option but to compete. We need to offer more sustainable alternatives, and we also need to educate the consumers who might prefer products with lower environmental impact.
But it is a hard competition, and the traditional industry will react. So we should be careful and start by selecting products where synthetic biology production has an advantage.
Kostas: What are the skills needed to succeed in the synbio industry?
Andreas: First, you have to believe that synbio can make a difference. Ideally, you are motivated, innovative, flexible, and a visionary. You need to visualise new applications. Topics such as food startups, synbio milk and synbio meat – these are areas where you can create a vision and get the financing you need.
Kostas: Any words of advice to young aspiring entrepreneurs?
Andreas: Just do it, don’t be afraid, and focus!
You can do many things, but you don’t have the time to do everything. So choose your area and focus!
Dr. Andreas Meyer is co-founder and CEO of FGen, a synthetic biology company active in strain development and optimization. Andreas earned his PhD in biotechnology from ETH Zurich and was a postdoctoral associate in the synthetic biology lab of Dr. Sven Panke. As an entrepreneur he is particularly interested in technology driven companies and open innovation.