Building a synthetic biology startup is tough – but stay the course and it’ll be the most rewarding struggle of your life, says James Field.
Since the advent of life 3.6 billion years ago, the survival of all species has depended on rapid innovation at the genetic level. As a consequence, our planet has grown rich with evolved technologies.
Traditionally, the dream of harnessing these evolved technologies has been confined to thought experiments and science fiction. Now, the emerging field of synthetic biology is giving engineers the tools required to tap into evolution’s code-base.
The synthetic biology revolution has emerged from the confluence of gene synthesis, next generation sequencing and machine learning. When deployed together, these technologies enable engineers to build new biological products for the benefit of mankind.
The Age of Biology has truly arrived and as a technology, synthetic biology will define the 21st century. This bold prediction isn’t sensationalist hype, rather it’s founded on the hard evidence that I see every day at the coalface of synthetic biology.
My own journey into this brave new world began in the summer of 2009 when, as a member of the Imperial College undergraduate team, I competed in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. As part of this process, I spent a summer working with a team of fellow Imperial undergraduates on the construction of a novel genetic circuit. At the end of the summer, 113 teams converged on the MIT campus to present their work. For the uninitiated, this annual competition is a crucible of innovation for the synthetic biology community and has been a training ground for over 30,000 students.
Since that formative experience, I’ve watched the synthetic biology community rapidly grow and mature. Today, synthetic biology startups are springing up on an almost daily basis as bioentrepreneurs seize the new commercial opportunities that have been created by this enabling technology.
If you’re nearing the end of your undergraduate or graduate studies and are thinking of joining our ranks, these five simple rules will prime you for what will be unquestionably be the hardest and (hopefully) the most rewarding struggle of your life.
Rule 1 – lead with a problem – not a technology
Scientists mine the chaos of the natural world for new understanding. The harder a problem is to solve, the more valuable and cherished the discovered knowledge becomes. For this reason, it’s easy to conflate scientific value with commercial opportunity. Instead, take the time to disentangle technical and commercial risk by understanding your customer’s needs before developing a solution.
The science of ‘customer discovery’ wasn’t something that I appreciated until I participated in SynbiCITE’s Lean Launchpad. It’s a grueling 10-week process that forces entrepreneurs to “get out the building” and into the heads of their potential customers.
Rule 2 – fill your war chest
Developing a novel biological product is a slow and expensive process. No matter how great your idea, if you don’t have the necessary funds, you’ll come unstuck. Luckily there are several entrepreneur-friendly financing mechanisms out there.
For example, in my case of my startup (LabGenius), we’ve used non-dilutive (which does not require the sale of shares) R&D financing from Innovate UK, Dstl and SynbiCITE to develop a platform for evolving novel advanced materials. In addition, we’ve had important academic collaborations financed with generous support from the BBSRC and EPSRC.
Rule 3 – sustain yourself with vision (not the hope of riches)
If your motivation for building a synthetic biology startup is purely financial then take a second to consider your position. There are undoubtedly less risky ways to make money. The struggle of building a company is tough and during the inevitable “dark nights of the soul” it will take vision and passion to sustain both yourself and your team – not the promise of riches.
Rule 4 – Pivoting ≠ failing
The harsh reality is that 90% of biotech companies fail. So before picking up a pipette, understand your market. In all likelihood, you’ll need to dynamically reshape your commercial offering several times before finding a winning product or service. The process of iterating through value propositions can feel very uncomfortable but remember, pivoting is not failing. Failing is refusing to give up on a bad idea.
Rule 5 – Enjoy the ride
There will be highs and there will lows so take the time to savour your wins and learn from your losses. The risks are high but this is your opportunity to have an incredible impact on the world. So take the leap and good luck!
James is founder and CEO of LabGenius – a London-based synthetic biology company working in the advanced materials space. James founded LabGenius during his PhD studies at Imperial College London. He is an active member of the synthetic biology community having participated in the iGEM competition both as an undergraduate (2009), advisor (2011) and judge (2016).