This week, the great and the good of the synthetic biology community gathered at Imperial College for the fifth SynBioBeta London, a key two-day conference on synthetic biology, its applications and challenges.

The annual conference brings together the vibrant global synthetic biology community and fosters the dialogue between entrepreneurs, business executives, tech practitioners, technology scouts, academics, and investors.

The conference opened with an overview of the sector, highlighting how strong the UK sector remains. Although the US is leading globally with over $278M already invested in 2017’s first quarter, the UK is leaps and bounds ahead of our European neighbours with our scientific excellence and strong start-up base.

synbio investment

Graph showing the increase in global investment into synthetic biology.

The conference included a mix of panel discussions, fire-side chats, and business presentations. It was inspiring to hear the latest innovations being developed in synthetic biology. Some of the key themes from this year’s conference included:

Engaging the public in the conversation

Keynote speaker Drew Endy, serial entrepreneur and researcher, highlighted the importance of the public’s understanding of the sector referencing the recent yes-vote in a Florida county on the use of GM mosquitoes to fight Zika. To tackle fears and preconceived ideas of the community, the pro-campaigners engaged with local communities by going door-to-door and organising town hall meetings with experts.

Endy emphasised that the sector should learn from this type of successful grassroot-engagement, reminding us that we cannot rely on technology to get our messages across but instead we need to get face-to-face with people and connect. We need to understand why people feel the way they do, to be able to build bridges between sectors and ideologies in order to overcome fears.

Think big changes; think long term

Lord Prior, Parliament Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), delivered a keynote speech where he talked about how we are on the verge of a fourth industrial revolution driven by scientific breakthroughs. One of the goals of the Government’s Industrial Strategy is to ensure how the UK can stay “ahead of the curve” to become the world leader of innovation.

However, with technological change comes many challenges. Lord Prior emphasised that the technology of the future needs to bridge inequality gaps between regions instead of increasing them. This relates to regional pillar of the Industrial Strategy, where the Government aims to spread growth across the country.

The success of bridging this inequality gap will partly rely on highlighting the usefulness of the technologies to the wider public. “The British are incorrigibly incrementalist, and not willing to make leaps like Google”, Lord Prior said. “We have to win the argument as to why we need these technologies for the betterment of society.”

UK’s continued access to “talent from all over the world” after Brexit will also be necessary to remain a premier science and research hub.  “We also must win the global battle for talent. Britain should not be considered synonymous with a tight immigration policy,” Lord Prior commented.

Investment

Tim Fell, CEO Synthace and our Engineering Biology Advisory Committee (EBAC) Chairman, interviewed the ever-impressive entrepreneur Hermann Hauser on why he invests in synthetic biology, and what he looks for. “There is a tsunami of exciting research results coming out of labs,” Hauser commented.

Hauser stressed that above all else, he looks for passion among people in a company. Following on, he considers:

  1. Size and growth rate of market;
  2. Quality of the skills of the team (there needs to be 1-2 key management figures);
  3. The technology they are developing.

Funding announcement

Data Collective (DCVC), a venture capital fund investing in entrepreneurs applying deep tech to transform giant industries, announced at the conference its partnering with Dr. John Cumbers to launch a pre-seed and seed venture capital fund, the DCVC SynBioBeta Fund, to invest in synthetic biology start-ups. Read more here.

Next conference

The next SynBioBeta conference is in San Francisco October 3, 2017 – October 5, 2017. Mark your calendars now, and read more here.