Defining Synthetic Biology for Startups

Trying to draw boundaries for a field of knowledge is a hopeless effort. The old joke about the undergrad that was very confused when he found out that Biology is Chemistry, Chemistry is Physics and Physics is Math is a bit hyperbolic but not wholly inaccurate. There is no imperative for the limits of knowledge to be aligned with the names of departments in our universities. So it is of no surprise that defining a new field with very few departments named after it is even harder to nail.

So there: it is complex to define precisely what “Synthetic Biology” means. It still resides in that limbo with words like “pornography”. But we still can tell when we see it, so let’s try to think about what are the features of entrepreneurial efforts in Synthetic Biology will look like.

Biology as technology 

This is what I believe to be the core aspect of Synthetic Biology. When we look at applications such as refactoring metabolic networks to optimize a given substrate production or designing organisms capable of sensing specific molecules, notice that the target is to use biology itself as technology. Contrast that with the earlier age of biotechnology* that gave us inventions such as medical imaging equipment or prosthetics. In these developments, inventors had to understand deeply several biological principles but the technology itself was external to biology. Instead, we were using electrical engineering or mechanical engineering of physics to solve a biological problem.

The idea of having biology as technology becomes very powerful if we explore what biology is good at. Digital electronics’ main strengths are its capacity to process logic and to store/transfer information. The internet, modern banking systems, map routing apps, yelp, facebook and other wonders from the digital era are leveraging on those strengths. Biological systems have quite a few interesting capabilities: molecular sensing; chemical synthesis; distributed, low power, low scale computing; self-organization; evolution. Can you think of applications that can leverage on these features? It isn’t optimal to first make a hammer and then look for a nail, but it is important to understand the types of hammers that can be built within Synthetic Biology framework while looking for nails.

*Caveats about generalization applies here: I am sure there are earlier biotechnology companies that use biology as technology, such as the whole molecular biology industry.

Embrace complexity

Imagine if you found yourself in a warehouse full of different types of electronic devices with technologies ranging from a simple radio to the IBM Watson and all smartphones, walkmans, iPods and gadgets in between. Imagine also that you knew little about Ohm’s laws of how transistors worked. Now imagine that you tried to make some new and useful application by toying with the several gadgets, trying to understand how they work by poking them with a multimeter. That is kinda what we do with biology. To be fair, we understand the central dogma and we are able to reliably work with DNA, so we aren’t in such a bad situation. But the fact is that we didn’t create living beings and hence we don’t quite understand how they work.

So we won’t be doing true engineering of organisms, we will be actually re-engineering existing ones. So realize that, as opposed to a computer software where there is solid grounded knowledge behind of every aspect of the product, in Synthetic Biology you will only understand the part of the system that you designed yourself - and have very little idea of weird effects coming from your microbial chassis. Thus, to be effective, you will have to be good at studying the literature to make sure that you don’t incur in expensive mistakes that could have been avoided by a week in the library. You should also include in your risk analysis potential problems stemming from the biology that is not well understood yet. There will be quite a bit of hard failures (things don’t work and you don’t quite know why) in the development so it is better to be prepared.

Aim for rational, predictable design

Yes, things are complex in biology. I just wrote so above! But you will want to produce a reliable product or technology or else you won’t have have a business for very long. And “biology is hard” isn’t a good excuse. Thankfully, most of the knowledge employed in our field is grounded in reproducible biology research that kicked off in 40s. These scientists set-up a very good template for you to run your R&D. Make sure you keep thorough notes in a research lab notebook, and make sure that you follow protocols exactly how they are designed. It is important that you are creative, but be sure that your creativity is happening when you are in your desk with a pen in your head, not when you are in your bench with a pipette. Paper is way cheaper than polymerase. Routine is boring, but being methodical can avoid expensive do-overs and will help you in understanding exactly what are the operating conditions under which your product will work.

Now it’s your turn to invent!

I hoped to draw a coordinate system for you guys to think about applications in Synthetic Biology. But these are just ideas for you guys to start thinking about it. This is an incredibly dynamic field with a lot of opportunity and is prime to break boundaries and have fun in doing so!


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Shridhar Jayanthi

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