If tech is really going to tackle the major problems of the world, then silicon is only going to get us so far. What we need is a whole new way of dealing with the physical world. That may just be happening in Cork.
Ireland’s second city plays host to one of the most significant biotechnology clusters in the world. “Something like 14 of the top 15 biotech companies on planet Earth have EMEA headquarters in Cork,” says Bill Liao, a partner at venture firm SOSventures, the backers of IndieB.io, which is being billed as the world’s first accelerator devoted to start-ups using biology to solve fundamental human problems. Cork is also home to Cork University and Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), two universities known for their strong focus on biotech.
For Liao, what is going on in Cork is nothing short of a revolution, and one that will make the disruption caused by the Internet look pale in comparison. Turning low-value raw materials into high-value products is the basis of economics. Synthetic biology does that at the molecular level, using micro-organisms to do the work for you.
“Nature has been a nano-technologist for millions of years,” he says. Because scientists have been able to unlock the secrets of DNA and manipulate it “there has been a quantum leap in the ability to turn low-value molecules into high-value molecules.”
The building blocks of this revolution are being put in place, he says. For example, Symbiota, a global open-source repository which allows contributors to upload genome compiler code or other open-source code and share it, is already being called the “Github” of synthetic biology. “DNA is fundamentally digital. What we have now is the ability to share higher-level language code between teams. That is really powerful,” says Liao.
Couple the ability to share DNA code with a cheap DNA sequencer and the fires of the revolution Liao describes may have just been lit. That is why one of the companies in IndieB.io’s first cohort was Graz, Austria-based KiloBaser, makers of a DNA rapid prototyper. Synthesizing DNA is slow and holding back development in synthetic biology, says KiloBaser CEO Alexander Murer. “Each time you order DNA usually you have to wait three to four days, or even up to months if you need longer pieces of DNA delivered,” he says. “Our idea was to create a DNA synthesizer that can synthesize the DNA in perhaps three to four hours.”
The company plans to make a synthesizer for around $3,000, roughly one-tenth the cost of an existing device. The breakthrough is in using a technology called micro-fluidics, applying the techniques used to produce silicon chips to fluids. “Our synthesizer has the ability to use perhaps 100 times less reagents [than conventional models],” he says. The company is seeking funding.
Convincing Yeasts To Make Milk Is Incredibly Efficient
What sort of things can synthetic biology produce? What about new materials? When attacked, the hagfish, a relative of the lamprey, produces up to a cubic meter of slime that actually comprises filaments that are 100x thinner than a human hair and stronger than nylon, steel and even Kevlar.
Benthic Labs, an IndieB.io company staffed by a team of undergraduates, is trying to mimic the strength of that slime by genetically modifying e.coli to make a new material they say compares favorably with Kevlar. According to Liao, the cost should be at least one-tenth that of Kevlar and, given the chemicals needed to make Kevlar, the process is “at least say five, probably 10, orders of magnitude better in terms of environmental preservation.”
Or what about energy? There have been many attempts to get bacteria to make diesel, but it hasn’t proved very successful at scale, not least because diesel is not a very conducive medium for bacteria. But, says Liao, “What if you could make a mix of bacteria that you could pour into a 44-gallon drum filled with food waste and water, and over a couple of days it released two or three liters of diesel? That does not sound like a lot but in the developing world two or three liters of diesel is enough to plow a field.” Liao says that this one hasn’t yet been cracked, but it is a target.
Or foods. Muufri, another IndieB.io company, turns yeast, caseins, whey proteins, a few chemicals and some sunflower oil into milk. “Convincing yeasts to make milk is incredibly efficient. The product you end up with is already bacteria-free so it has an unlimited shelf life. Without refrigeration. It tastes perfect like milk — and it is vegan.”
While biotech has long promised much, but all too often under-delivered, what is different this time, says Liao, is that these new companies combine the science with the agility and speed of a digital start-up. “I fully expect them to give returns on a tech company timeline, not on a medical/pharma timeline.”