I think it’s safe to say the cat is out of the bag when it comes to Synthetic biology. In case you missed it, a synbio start-up company called Zymergen, commercializing a biology-driven materials discovery platform, raised a whopping $44M in its series A mid-June 2015. While this is a big A round by any standards, it’s even more significant when looking back at the performance of venture-backed industrial biotech and biofuel companies over the last decade (reminder - it’s not a pretty picture).
So what is synthetic biology? And what’s different this time?
Let’s start with the basics: Industrial biotechnology is inherently the manufacture of industrial products such as chemicals, liquid fuels, and amino acids, etc., using living organisms as the agents of production. There are three main process technologies that come into play – fermentation, enzymatic conversion, and the extraction (or excretion) of desired compounds from the organisms.
Industrial biotechnology is also a HUGE industry (estimates place it at more $125 billion in 2012 (Carlson, 2014).
One of our portfolio companies, Calysta, is a great example of a company that is leveraging advancements in industrial biotechnology. Calysta is harnessing methantrophic bacteria (bacteria that consume methane), to convert that methane into desired compounds such as lactic acid or microbial proteins for aquaculture and livestock feed.
Synthetic biology is different.
Technology innovation that falls under this banner refers to the development of engineered cells, and ultimately the ability to construct living organisms from the assembly of different parts. Not just altering or adding to the genetic code of an organism, but specifying every nucleotide in its DNA. The DNA becomes the LEGO™ building block, for example.
Once the DNA or organism has been constructed, traditional industrial biotechnology processes, such as fermentation, can be used for the production of a desired material.
It’s worth pointing out that synthetic biology is not a technology that has emerged in isolation. As computing capabilities become both more powerful and less expensive, so too has our ability to sequence DNA and create organisms. For example, in 2003 it cost $2.5 billion to sequence the human genome. In 2015 that same task costs around $1000 and can be done by a handheld device [Moore’s law, anyone?].
The opportunity created here by synthetic biology is enormous. Stanford professor Drew Endy estimates the financial opportunity related to synbio today is around 2% of the US economy and is growing at an estimated 12% CAGR. The UK has named synthetic biology as one of the 8 great technologies that will drive economic growth in the future. Additionally, the UK government announced over $260M of funding for research, development, and commercialization activities in this space. (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eight-great-technologies). In the United States, there is DARPA’s Living Foundries Program. One of its initiatives is to use biology to generate the chemical building blocks in order to produce and access new materials that are impossible to create using petroleum-based feedstocks.
Synthetic biology has the potential to transform almost every industry. From impacting human health to energy to food production to global security. So you better buckle up and get your petri dishes ready, because we could be in for one wild ride.