Every fall, San Francisco fills with a volatile cocktail of venture capitalists, CEOs, and gene geeks from Stanford to Shenzhen as the bioengineering world gathers for SynBioBeta, the Super Bowl of synthetic biology. Startups look for investors, investors look for the next big thing, rock-star researchers blow some minds, and journalists try to make sense of it all.
SynBioBeta is the brain child of John Cumbers, a molecular biologist who spent seven years in NASA’s synthetic biology program, engineering organisms to provide food, fuel, medicine, and other support materials on space missions. Cumbers saw that the nascent synthetic biology companies needed an ecosystem in which they could flourish. He started with a speed-dating event for startups and investors in Menlo Park in 2012. Today, SynBioBeta is a full-fledged system of events, information, and networking opportunities, and it gives Cumbers an ongoing window into the future. He chatted with Quartz about the view.
Q: After years of promise, synthetic biology seems like it took off in 2018, with investments pouring in and products beginning to come to market. Do you think we’ve hit some kind of tipping point?
I’m not sure it’s a tipping point. There’s just a lot of money flowing in. These are good technologies, good startups, and huge markets, and there’s a lot of capital around looking for a place to go. And we’re seeing more large partnerships with established players. But there’s going to be some shakeout when the recession happens. I still think we’ve got to be more focused on products and revenue and profitability. Then I think we’ll hit a tipping point.
Q: As the CEO of SynBioBeta, you get to see a lot of synthetic biology ventures in their embryonic form. Do the good ones always succeed?
I actually haven’t seen a lot of promising ideas crash and burn. Given that nine out of ten startups fail, there’s actually been surprisingly few failures in the synthetic biology industry. We’ve only seen a handful of failed companies so far. There’s a lot of smart people with PhDs starting these companies, and if you’ve got the grit to stick through a PhD, then I think that’s a pretty high barrier to entry. That could be a reason why there’s so few failures. Or it could just be that the failures haven’t failed yet. There’s a whole bunch of crappy companies coming out of some of these incubators. We’re gonna see a lot of them fail in the next couple of years.
Q: After medicine and agriculture, which industry do you think will be next to be seriously disrupted by synthetic biology?
Materials. It’s currently underway, from spider silk to mushroom leather. Materials is definitely going to be next. Consumer products, too: There’s a really good company called Z Biotics that is coming out with a probiotic hangover cure. They’ve engineered a probiotic [live bacteria and yeasts that are good for you] that produces the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the body. [You have to take it while the damage is being done.]
Q: What ventures are you most excited about right now?
The brewing sciences—making hop-flavored beer without the hops [by engineering the hops genes into the yeast]. And living medicines. In addition to Z Biotics, which I just mentioned, a company called Synlogic has a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks to engineer probiotics that treat neurological conditions and liver diseases by modulating metabolites in the gut. Then you’ve got Ecovative [the myco-materials company], which just got a big grant from DARPA to engineer sustainable and responsive biomaterials.
Q: Any that are below the radar but you think have a chance to be huge?
I’ve invested in a company called Culture Robotics, which is doing cloud-based bioreactors. You won’t find anything about them online, but they’re pretty interesting. Visolis, which produces carbon-negative chemicals out of natural materials instead of petroleum, is another I’ve invested in. Berkeley Lights is another—an absolutely amazing piece of hardware for manipulating single cells. And Inscripta [see State of Play, “Beyond Crispr”] is going to be huge.
Q: On the opposite end of that question, what traditional companies should be shaking in their boots right now?
Any manufacturing company that isn’t thinking about biology should be worried. And any materials company. And any fossil fuel company.
Q: Which areas of synthetic biology do you expect to succeed as businesses in the short term? And which areas will need more time to develop?
The short-term successes will be anything that we’re already making using some inefficient process and biology can do it faster, better, cheaper. Something like enzymatic DNA synthesis [an approach to “writing” DNA] needs a bit more time.
Q: Traditionally, the two centers of gravity in synthetic biology have been the Bay Area and Boston. Is that changing? How important is China?
China is becoming a big player in synthetic biology. It’s reached the level of Xi Jinping. There’s a serious amount of money going in to three main centers: Tianjin, Shenzhen, and Nanjing. They’ve got pretty good ideas, pretty good inventions, and pretty good companies.
Q: What’s the biggest misunderstanding about synthetic biology?
What it is. It’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it. It’s not the product you make, it’s how you made the product. It’s not a particular tool or technique or technology, it’s a floating of all boats by making biology more robust, reliable, predictable, and engineerable.