Synthetic biology: Silicon Valley to South Kensington

Friday 22nd May, 2015

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From medicines to toys, from skincare to artificial organs, synthetic biology start-ups are sweeping across the capital. Can business and science work together?

Stretching from the high street to the hospital, synthetic biology is taking over London’s universities, churning out a new generation of entrepreneurs who are taking scientific research into the business arena.

Synthetic biology as a concept is difficult to define, due to the pace at which it is changing. Using a combination of science and engineering, it is possible to design new systems that do not exist naturally, whether for cancer treatment, educational toys or a male stretch mark cream.

The UK has become a lot more entrepreneurial in its thinking and what it wants to achieve.

Until recently, the greatest advances in synthetic biology were made by startups in Silicon Valley, a hub for high tech startups in San Francisco. Based in the US for 22 years, Dr Stephen Chambers has started company after company, but recently decided to return to London.

“The UK has become a lot more entrepreneurial in its thinking and what it wants to achieve,” he says. “It’s being driven by very young folks now.”

Chambers is the CEO of SynbiCITE, a technology start-up hub based in Imperial College London’s innovation incubator, which houses 20 small businesses. With a view to industrialising scientific technology, SynbiCITE helps to commercialise emerging research into sustainable businesses.

“The typical model that you have with UK universities is that they do this great research but they want to keep it and license it to Shell or Microsoft or some multinational,” says Chambers. “They don’t want to try to start-up companies.”

But, by bridging the gap between science and entrepreneurship, synthetic biology changes all that.

Cellibero's molecular biology kit for children: just add water

“All the activity is coming from start-ups. The big companies are sitting back and just watching what’s going on. The way you get innovation is through start-ups, not big licensing deals,” Chambers adds.

London’s leading universities are now leading the surge, producing ever more scientists-cum-entrepreneurs looking to make use of their research. SynbiCITE’s Lean Launchpad is a crash course in entrepreneurship, taking scientists out of their laboratories and providing them with the skills, knowledge and understanding to take their science to market.

“All of these researchers come in and all they want to do is talk about their technology,” says Chambers. “No one’s interested in that. All they’re interested in is what it will do for them. We take them in and on day one, slap them around the head and say ‘no, don’t talk about that’. Tell people why they need it.”

The concept of the start-up “launchpad” has been around in Silicon Valley for some time, but is new to the UK. Chambers is hoping that it will “go viral” across the country and encourage the creation of many start-ups, just like those he has advised at Imperial College.

We had to do ten interviews a week. We would just walk into buildings and talk our way in

Nanocage Technologies is one of these companies. It has developed a technology that allows drugs to be transported to specific cells in the body inside tiny protein cages. With the potential to deliver cancer therapies to the exact location, rather than affecting the whole body, reducing unpleasant and often debilitating side effects, the implications of such a treatment could prove to be very significant.

But some ideas have been more focussed on the consumer-facing facets of synthetic biology. Cellibero, made up of Drs Richard Kelwick, James MacDonald and Lorna Ravenhill, has developed a molecular biology version of a child’s first chemistry set, in which children can play with real DNA. As academics, they found the transition from lab to boardroom tricky.

“At first it was quite a stressful and unusual experience, but we got used to it,” says MacDonald. “We were out of our comfort zone. We had to do ten interviews a week. We would just walk into buildings and talk our way in.”

ETAL, a performance skincare start-up, founded by molecular biologist Gracie Oury, A&E doctor Kieran Latham and pharmaceutical scientist Pitchaya Rungsereechai, but now run by just Latham Oury and Latham, found the challenge was the pressure they were under to come up with the right product. But now having found their niche, they have confidence in their idea.

“We found this molecule that we wanted to work with and went from there,” says Latham. “We had to make the product very niche because we can’t afford the massive marketing campaigns that skincare products usually have.“

Latham, Oury and Rungsereechai from Etal skincare (Click to magnify)

They are focused on bringing the scientific rigour of academia to the skincare sector and are developing a male stretch mark cream, hoping it will be on the market in a few months.

“Men represent around 33 per cent of product purchases in the UK. It’s a £5.3m market in the UK alone. So it’s niche but it’s not so niche that it’s uninteresting to go after from a business perspective,” says Oury.

ETAL won a grant of £10,000 from UCL Bright Ideas 2015 competition and the London Entrepreneurs Challenge best presentation for their stretch mark cream, and have the interest of a business angel.

Chambers says the reason for their success is their can-do attitude. “They are such a great team, so enthusiastic. You just want them to succeed, and they will, simply because they work so well together.”

The products currently being developed with synthetic biology in the UK are remarkably varied. And this is a market that is almost entirely driven by start-ups. A few years ago you had to travel to San Francisco to find this kind of innovation but today you just have to venture down the road in London.  

So what does the future hold for these companies?

“It’s only on the increase,” says Chambers. “It’s interesting how the UK looks to America and thinks it was always like it is now. It took Silicon Valley 25 years to reach this point. But in five or 10 years it’s going to look very similar here to those hubs in the US. I’m sure of it.”