In a first of its kind, a new incubator modeled on the well known Y Combinator has been started for emerging synthetic biology companies. SynBio Launchpad is a joint effort by Singularity University, provider of higher education in exponentially advancing industries, and their landlord, NASA. The program came about from a discussion between Andrew Hessel, co-chair of SU’s Biotechnology and Bioinformatics track, and John Cumbers, Deputy Managing Director of Synthetic Biology at NASA. Intending first to put together a weekend business plan competition, the two found support from both their institutions and private investors to fund the four month program. Last Thursday the “Bio Combinator” officially kicked off with the announcement of three fledgling participants.
Synthetic biology is an exciting frontier with great promise for solving many of the problems that stare us in the face as the world’s population continues to increase at an unsavory rate. When Craig Venter showed he could create a synthetic life form, there was a wee bit of hoopla about the creation of bioengineered microorganisms that will be able to produce new drugs, destroy cancer cells, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, and provide less expensive and sustainable food for the growing number population. The most promising immediate commercial application of synthetic biology has been in the area of biofuels. Investors, including the US and other governments, rushed to support the production of hydrogen through newly engineered bacteria or plants.
Yet as of today, none of these well funded enterprises has delivered. Details recently emerged showing why the synbio company, Amyris, is putting a halt to its biofuels business. The company has been charging an average of $29 per gallon, a price which cannot compete with petroleum-based diesel. Nor is this high price enough to bring the products’ income statement to break even. Last week, Wired Magazine reported that the House of Representatives seeks to ban the Defense Department from making or buying an alternative fuel that costs more than a “traditional fossil fuel.”
What, I asked on my way to the kick-off event at the NASA Ames campus in Mountain View, could these new companies be up to? Yes, the promise is there, but the challenges seem incredibly daunting. This is not an NIH or DARPA funded university program. This is making and selling products in the real world. Well funded companies like Amyris and George Church’s endeavor, LS9, haven’t yet commercially succeeded. How are these yet-to-be funded start-ups going to fare?
As it turns out, none of the three participants are working on biofuels. Out of dozens of applicants, the chosen start-ups are Evolutionary Solutions, Modern Meadow, and SoilGene. Their names are giveaways to what they attempt. Evolutionary Solutions is developing a genome synthesis device using microfluidics. The company was founded by the young team, Kettner Griswold and Paul Sebexen, both from Georgia Tech. Griswold and Sebexen have already been working on their device which they say will change the oligo and gene synthesis industry by drastically reducing the cost of goods. I know the oligo business well and am familiar with the low prices in this commoditized industry. Still, my skepticism couldn’t shake the confidence of Kettner and Sebexen as they eagerly explained their technology. It was one of those moments where ask to yourself, who knows--they’re young and perhaps they could deliver a disruption. Both of them are Thiel Fellows who each received $100,000 to drop out of the university and be entrepreneurs.
Modern Meadow, co-founded by Andras Forgacs, is applying tissue-engineering techniques to produce high volumes of animal protein for food and textiles. “You mean, burgers grown in the lab,” I ask Forgacs. “That’s right. But we need a better name than 'lab meat.' He encourages me to brainstorm with him. The best we come up with is 'sustainable meat.' “Think about it,” he urges with undeniable exuberance, “animals are highly inefficient manufacturing plants.” OK. He has a point. Forgacs, who has already had success with a tissue company that just went public, Organovo, can go on and on about the environmental impact and more humane ways of harvesting animal protein. He says that the company could produce the lab burgers right away, but for obvious marketing considerations, they are going to start with leather production. It is easier for the consumer to buckle up a belt produced in the lab than plow into a juicy steak from a 'system' that didn’t graze on grass. This weekend, I found Modern Meadow to be a great conversation piece at parties. Next time you’re out at the pub with your friends, ask them if they’d be ok with a synbio burger.
The night ended before I could talk to the founders of SoilGene, Zachary Apte and Robert Lim. But the press release put out by SU says the company “combines metagenomic and bioinformatic approaches to survey land opportunities for he natural resources and agriculture sectors.” Nice and vague.
At the end of four months, the three companies are supposed to have a prototype of their products. For lab space, they will be housed at both the DIY Lab, BioCurious, and at Triple Ring Technologies over in Newark. Priding themselves on being innovative and risk taking, Triple Ring sees the program as a great fit for their own vision. The new founders will be rubbing shoulders with an established company and also mentored by some of the best researchers and entrepreneurs from the Bay Area synbio community. Many of the mentors showed on opening night and gave the launchpad a solid launch itself. Whether these three companies succeed in their present iteration wasn’t on the minds of the SU staff in the room. “It was always about starting companies, not just the classroom,” said Managing Director of New Venture Development at SU. “We want to build a synbio community that will create companies to change the world.”
“Ours is not a near term focus,” added Modern Meadow’s Forgacs.
Join us in the future for a series of podcasts on synthetic biology. We will be speaking with Forgacs, Cumbers, Hessel, and others associated with Synbio Launchpad.