The Most Important Omic is Econ-omic: Synthetic Biology Conference Turns Two

Theral Timpson

Deoxyribonucleic acid.  DNA.  We can read it.  We can write it.  It’s been the foundation of life for billions of years.  Surely there’s lots of money to be made with it, right?

That’s what a group of leading scientists, creative entrepreneurs, and investors with an appetite for risk are banking on.  They’re known as the synbio community, and many of them gathered last week for the 2nd annual SynBioBeta conference.  These folks are tinkering with the DNA of about anything you can think of.  Special bacteria manipulated to produce alternative fuel.  Seeds for custom fruits, vegetables, and grain that are more hearty, disease resistant, colorful, flavorful.  Beauty products.  Specialty oils.  Plants that glow in the dark and may some day be used to light your neighborhood streets.  Sterile male mosquitos that stop the spread of malaria and other diseases.  The possibility to revive ancient life forms that have gone extinct.  Who here wants to see wooly mammoths roaming in Alaska?  In the headlines this morning, we read that Craig Venter is seeking to electronically transmit DNA code between Mars and Earth.

In the past, synthetic biology has been the domain of well funded public research laboratories or large corporations.  Everyone knows about Monsanto and GMOs.  But now, as with anything related to computing, the ability to tinker with DNA is being democratized by every more efficient and inexpensive technology.  Startups are blooming in the space nurtured by an expanding group of investors.  Projects once thought the domain of big science are now crowdfunded on KickStarter and IndieGogo.  Calling all biohackers to a community lab near you!

Will the easy availability of DNA reading and writing technology lead to an economic boom with an array of new products and services limited only by our imagination?  The synbio community is betting “yes.”    

Meeting in the Mission Bay District of San Francisco, the SynBioBeta crowd hails mostly from Silicon Valley, and they look to the hightech/IT industry as a model of growth and innovation.

“Matter is programmable.  Biology is the new software,” said Andrew Hessel, one of a long line  of speakers at the conference giving quick talks.  Hessel is a well known guru in the space who recently went to work for the rapidly growing 3D design company, Autodesk.  

“What do we want to build, not what can we build is the new question,” asserted keynote speaker Steve Jurvetson.  He’s one of the top investors in synbio and a board member of Tesla Motors.

The conference's organizing team is led by a young scientist, John Cumbers, who’s gigs during the day at NASA Ames.   Working his way through school inspired by ideas of terraforming Mars, Cumbers is outspoken about NASA’s synbio program and determined to nurture the business side of the community with the annual conference.  

And he’s succeeding.  This year he and his team doubled the attendance of the conference over last year and persuaded some big names in the investing community to take the conference in a strong business direction.  There were more investors than new companies he told me in an email today punctuated with exclamations marks.  

If last year the goal was to gather the community in one place and launch the conference, this year it was business, business, business.

“The most improtant ‘omic’ is ‘economic,” said speaker Harry Yim, quoting Syndey Brenner.  Yim is a director of engineering at Genomatica, a new company producing sustainable chemicals.

Investor Panel at SynBioBeta

Give Me Some Products

No doubt, this annual shindig is a full day of hype.   Some companies who presented last year are no longer to be seen.  But there is obvious traction, as evidenced by a panel of investors deliberating on just what gives them that special feeling inside.

“Don’t talk to me about technology.  Give me products,” said panelist and investor, Una Ryan.

She’s the chair of the new Bay Area BioEconomy Initiative and a strong voice for women entrepreneurs.  Her main point is a good one.  Many of the startups in the industry have struggled with commercialization.  They usually begin with some cool technology but are unable to convert to useable products.  

This is changing.  One of the big news items for the industry this year was the successful IPO of Intrexon, a sythetic bio company that has been in stealth mode.  Intrexon is working on several fronts from biofuel to new types of drugs and this year formed a new consumer focused subsidiary called BioPop, for Biological and Popular Culture.  BioPop came from the buyout of Yonder Biology, makers of the Dino Pet, a bioluminescent pet on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  A glowing pet is not exactly an iPhone.  But who know's what will come of it?

At the time of the IPO, Intrexon CEO, Randal Kirk told Forbes’ Matt Herper, “I’ve been a biotech investor for 27 years, and Intrexon is by far the best thing I’ve ever seen.  Kirk became a billionaire with the sale of his two previous drug companies, New River Pharmaceuticals and Clinical Data.

Biology Is the New Software

Reese Jones is a long time angel investor.  He told the crowd that he’d been involved in high tech back in the “Homebrew” days, and that the new biology space has the same feel.   (Recall the article in Wired a couple years back where Bill Gates said if he were a teenager today, he'd be hacking biology.)

Moore’s Law, the observation that over time, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years, was the most popular model at the conference.  The graph was used time and again to give an inevitability to the coming rise of synthetic biology.  

I asked Reese, Una, and the panel of investors if there was a threshold--for instance, the price of synthetic genes--that they were using as a positive signal for investing.

Una replied that she didn’t think there should be such a threshold and again returned to the theme of “give me products.”  Reese said he’s looking for the time when the reading and writing of DNA is as cheaply done as nature can do it.  That is, for free.

“We can predict the breakthroughs, but just not the companies that will be born,” said Michael Fero, the co-founder and CEO of TeselaGen, which develops software for large scale production of DNA assemblies.

The Wooly Mammoth in the Room

The elephant in the room, or let's say wooly mammoth (which, if it is indeed revived, would have to be born by an elephant) at any synbio conference will almost always be PR.  The promise of new products that will save humanity on planet earth is not without its detractors, and I was happy that the investor panel did not avoid the topic of regulation and PR.  We’ve covered this subject in many interviews at Mendelspod, so here I’ll just say that the concerns, and I believe mostly fear, on the part of average citizens about synthetic biology, most notably GMOs, is very real.

The panel of investors were asked by an audience member how regulatory uncertainty plays into their assessment of risk, and all of the panel came off as quite settled in their views.  There is uncertainty, they agreed, but this hurdle exists for any new industry with promise and one shouldn’t be afraid.  

Una was the most outspoken.  “I’m frankly tired of this cowardly approach to regulation,” she said.  

She’s an advocate of the industry beginning with self regulation and then having a proactive part in creating any government standards.  She was also pretty vocal with her distaste for the term 'synthetic biology.'  She finds it is too entrenched in academia and spooks the public.  She'd like to hear about just 'biology.'

In his keynote, Steve Jurvetson got some chuckles out of the audience when he talked about “motherless meat.”  The phrase does sound better than the more typical “lab meat” and reflected the investor’s awareness of the importance of words in selling such new products.  

Steve said he’s not currently a vegetarian but that he thinks he may be some day.  "I’ll be looking back wondering how I ever ate animal meat," he said.  

It’s true.  Our ethics do change over time.  (See slavery, polygamy, paternalism.)  And perhaps the best ethical defense of a strong snybio industry came again from the investor panel: The biggest risk is in not pursuing it, they all agreed.

Part of a final panel on alternative funding sources, Anthony Evans is the creator of the Glowing Plants Project (see our interview here), a project he funded through KickStarter.  The project is enormously popular with the synbio community as it raised over $450,000 from every day folks demonstrating a certain mass appeal.  Those who pitched in will receive seeds or plants according to their contribution.

Anthony said the biggest goal for the project is to give people something in their hands they can touch and feel, to reach out and build more public awareness.

The conference ended with a chance to go into a dark room to see for ourselves the glowing plants which everyone is discussing.   The single, small aradopsis was not blinding with light, but it does glow,  an apt symbol of the conference and the fledgling industry.