Stephen Chambers - Selling synbio

09 December 2015

Interview with

Stephen Chambers, Imperial College London

Kat - Now it's time to return to our theme of synthetic biology. Stephen Chambers is CEO of SynbiCITE - a national centre set up to turn bright ideas in synthetic biology into real life commercial applications, by partnering researchers with companies. I started by asking him what kind of organisations he works with.

Stephen - It's the complete range of companies that we talk to. It's everything from multinational companies, right the way down to start-ups and a lot of researchers in the lab that are thinking about commercialising. So, they haven't even set up a company. They're just thinking about setting up a company.

Kat - In many areas of biology, perhaps the most obvious way of commercialising something might be to develop a drug for a disease or cancer or something like that. In terms of synthetic biology, what are the kind of applications that people are starting to look at? Where are these engineered organisms potentially being used?

Stephen - The obvious ones are always like the biomedical area. And they are always there. The exciting thing about synthetic biology is it's much broader than that. That's the exciting thing about synthetic biology. So, it's not just the biomedical technology. It's also agritech, it's chemical industry, it's remediation, it's manufacturing. It's every kind of production you can think of. So, it's much, much broader than just the space that biotech would have had in the past.

Kat - Has it been a challenge trying to get the scientists working in this field to go, "Actually, I have potential commercial applications for my research." Sometimes scientists do think, "Oh no! This is research. This isn't industry."

Stephen - Yes, it is a challenge. But that's one of the roles that we have here to educate the scientists to give them confidence that they can start up their own business and that it is possible. We have a large number of mentors to help them through that process. We have educational programmes, we have funding programmes as well. So, it's all geared to enabling those researchers with the confidence to step outside the lab and commercialise their ideas.

Kat - What sort of different areas of commercialisation are there for synthetic biology technologies?

Stephen - The way I think about it and the way that people typically break it down is that there's two areas. They call it enabling and enabled. So, the enabling is a large number of tools and reagents, things that - you know, it's almost like foundational technology behind synthetic biology.

Kat - The kind of the Lego bricks that people can take and build things with?

Stephen - Exactly, almost the picks and shovels. So, there's that element to it and that's what we call enabling. And then there's the enabled. That's the end product so that's the interesting thing. That's the fine chemical that's being made, that's the drug that's being made. I have a lot of companies that come through me and it's amazing the types of different things they're making, everything from super cosmetics, right the way through to medical devices, apps. So, it's really, really broad. It's very hard to define. It's one of the challenges but also, what makes it so exciting.

Kat - What sort of products and processes are people starting to use this technology in?

Stephen - Well just to talk about my own ecosystem and the companies that I'm interacting with, I have companies that are making hard to make chemicals. I think you'd probably describe them as that. They're making new drugs. I've got one company that's launching a product in a couple of months which is a cosmetic, and then I have another company that is launching some reagents and tools in synthetic biology. So again, it's very broad and full of different applications.

Kat - Do you think that there's kind of a killer app? There's something out there that synthetic biology can solve for us that nothing else has been able to solve yet?

Stephen - Obviously, as a technology, we're always looking for that killer app that's going to get the public's attention. But I don't think I've seen one yet. There are some very exciting tools out there, but I don't think we've seen the killer app yet.

Kat - How do you see this technology expanding, changing, developing over say, the next 5 to 10 years? Where would you hope that we would end up?

Stephen - I think one of the big pushes for synthetic biology is going to be around sustainability where synthetic biology has its roots in. synthetic biology is a very interesting phenomenon. It's very much kind of grassroots based. It's not a top down thing. There's this large community of very enthusiastic participants in synthetic biology and they are pushing it. They have a very utopian idea about synthetic biology and they are really pushing the green side of things. I think where we're going to see a lot of movement in synthetic biology that's going to be attractive to the public is around the bioremediation, around environmental kind of concerns.

Kat - Can synthetic biology save the world?

Stephen - Definitely.

Kat - Stephen Chambers from SynbiCITE.

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