Sitting Down with Some SynBio Startups
The Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars focuses on all aspects of the emerging technology of synthetic biology, looking at its potential risks and benefits. As part of this work, we have started speaking with entrepreneurs who are using synthetic biology as the basis for their businesses.
For example, at the SynBioBeta conference in Silicon Valley in late 2012, we interviewed executives with startups in the synthetic biology space to hear about what they do and what obstacles they face when launching a biotech company. What was interesting to us was the sheer variety of businesses already using this technology: companies were developing mining applications, producing organisms for other companies and working on faster, cheaper ways to keep food safe. Here are some of our conversations:
Patrick Nee is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Universal Bio Mining, a San Francisco-based company that uses synthetic biology to develop applications in both mineral extraction and water remediation. In our conversation, Nee discusses the use of engineered organisms in the mining industry, outlines some of the regulatory frameworks in the United States and abroad and mentions some of the groups looking at the ethical issues facing synthetic biology. Nee also talks about the benefits for startups in the field to work with larger, established partners, which can help the smaller firms though the development and regulatory processes.
Jason Kelly is the co-founder of Ginkgo BioWorks, a Boston-based company that uses an integrated engineering platform to design made-to-order microbes for customers working in pharmaceuticals, flavorings and other fields. (See the company’s own highly entertaining video here.) In the interview, Kelly talks about how technologies are quickly making it easier to engineer bio-organisms, leading towards greater disruption – and that a key challenge for Gingko is educating customers about these changes.
Mike Koeris, a co-founder of Sample6 Technologies, spoke with us about his company’s work developing a faster, cheaper diagnostic for detecting bacteria like listeria in food. Sample6 is using synthetic biology to develop a test that uses bacteriophage to infect listeria to generate the same enzyme that makes fireflies glow in the dark – the glowing light would indicate the presence of bacteria in food. Koeris also talks about the challenges facing entrepreneurs in the field of synthetic biology and why companies sometimes pivot away from their initial hypothesis.
These three conversations illustrate just some of the potential that startups are seeing in synthetic biology, as well as outlining some of the challenges facing these companies. More videos and other resources can be found here: http://www.synbioproject.org