On the evening of 11th October, leading experts from academia and industry, with entrepreneurs, investors and policymakers, convened to discuss the emergence of the synthetic biology era. The conference, hosted by UCL Innovation Forum and held at the Institute of Child Health, saw hundreds of attendees garnering information from experts on the current knowledge and future trends of synthetic biology.
The structure of the conference comprised of opening keynotes, talks about the future applications of synthetic biology from leaders in academia and industry, a start-up showcase given by CEOs, an executive panel with audience question and answer, and a networking session to conclude.
Acclaimed scientific author and broadcaster, Dr. Adam Rutherford, introduced the opening keynotes with an imaginative and concise analogy to synthetic biology: the evolution of rap music. He mentioned The Beatles more often than the words “synthetic” or “biology”, yet concluded his talk to gratuitous nods of agreement and admiration. His uncanny ability to communicate complex science and entertain an audience remains unwavering. The keynotes were wrapped-up by speakers Dr. Chris Jones, Lead Technologist in Biosciences at Innovate UK and Dr. Vitor Pinherio, Co-Director of the UCL Centre for Synthetic Biology.
Future Applications of Synthetic Biology
After the keynotes, industry leaders and academics gave talks about their involvement in developing and using synthetic biology techniques to solve future challenges. The first speaker, Kevin Gorman, Scientific Affairs Manager from Oxitec, explained how their company was using genetic modification to reduce the number of Aedes aegypti mosquitos that carry viral diseases, such as dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and Zika. Following this, Dr. Ian Fotheringham, Managing Director of Ingenza, described how his company was optimising synthetic biology techniques, such as DNA recombination, to boost efficiency, reproducibility, lower cost and utilize sustainable resources. Next, CTO of Synthace, Sean Ward, talked about how this company was developing a high-level programming language and operating system for laboratory hardware that could optimise synthetic biology protocols. Finally, Dr. Paul Grant, a Synthetic Biologist in the Biological Computation group at Microsoft Research, Cambridge, presented his research on using computational modelling to understand synthetic gene regulatory networks.
Following these talks, CEOs of biotechnology companies were invited to talk about their products and services that utilise synthetic biology. The first showcase was CustoMem, presented by CEO, Henrik Hageman. A spin-out company from the Imperial iGEM team, CustoMem develops membrane cartridges to remove and recycle micropollutants in treated water. Next, CEO Philipp Boeing pitched Bento Lab, another iGEM spin-out company. Bento Lab is the world’s first, affordable, portable DNA analysis laboratory that can be used by anybody. Dr. James Field, CEO and Founder of LabGenius, described how his company creates robust and reliable DNA libraries for researchers. Finally, Edward Pellero, CEO and Founder of Desktop Genetics, gave a talk on how his company creates next-generational tools and services for CRISPR genome editing in research.
To conclude the conference, a panel discussion, involving Dr. Stephen Chambers, CEO at SynbiCITE; Oliver Sexton, Investment Director Rainbow Seed Fund; Dr. Bani Bach, Director of Healthcare Ventures Imperial Innovations; and Dr. Chris Jones, Lead Technologist in Biosciences at Innovate UK. Questions from the audience were varied and moderate but one probing question caused a clear divide in opinion: ‘What would be the impact of Brexit on biotechnology innovation in the UK?’. With one half of the panel almost quaking in fear at the prospect and the other half seeming to have little concern, the impact of Brexit is still anybody’s guess. Let’s hope the UK remains a key player in synthetic biology and biotechnology in the coming years.