Imperial College London

Q&A with Imperial student start-up Synthesea

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A collage showing the six members of the Synthesea team

Synthesea is an Imperial student-led start-up that aims to develop cheap, sustainable lipid synthesis tools.

The Synthesea team – Ting Lee, Shreya Singhal, Reiss Jones, Anna Schwarzenbach, Francesco Rivetti and Aramis Korchidian (pictured in the photo above - clockwise from top left) – are all current students from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences. Over a virtual chat four of them told us more about their work, reflecting on what they’ve learnt along the way and sharing their advice for other students interested in enterprise.

So what’s Synthesea, and how did the team get started?

Reiss: ‘The Synthesea team aims to tackle the hugely unsustainable use of fish oil in the aquaculture industry by developing synthesis technology to produce omega 3.

You need 4,200 wild caught fish to provide enough omega 3 for just one farmed salmon over its lifetime... we’re trying to replace the use of wild fish in this system, with a sustainable and cheaper alternative. Reiss Jones Undergraduate, Department of Life Sciences

Fish need to consume omega 3 to grow healthily. 52% of fish livestock are grown in aquafarms and most of their feed comes from wild caught fish. You need 4,200 wild caught fish to provide enough omega 3 for just one farmed salmon over its lifetime, so if you multiply the amount of wild fish needed to support the industry it’s really alarming. The current system also has significant and negative impacts on the broader ecosystem and food webs too. What we’re trying to do is replace the use of wild fish in this system, with a sustainable and cheaper alternative.’

Anna: ‘We met at SynBIC, Imperial’s synthetic biology society, came up with our idea in preparation for the Synthetic Biology Advanced Hackspace Competition and ended up winning. We then participated in the Imperial Enterprise Lab’s Pioneer Fund, and other competitions not affiliated with Imperial including the CleanTech Challenge, CIPTA 2020, TFF (Thought For Food), and the University Startup World Cup Finals’.

Ting: ‘Actually, this was not our first idea – we met at the competition, and once we’d formed the team, came up with a list of about seven or eight ideas. We picked one, and after we’d worked on it for about a week or two we realised that the idea kind of sucked! So we went back to the drawing board and came up with this.’

Shreya: ‘At the beginning our research process was mostly drawing chemical structures on a whiteboard and figuring out what we can do with them – and it’s the same now apart from we’re using virtual whiteboards and hangouts! It was absolutely learning as we go because although Life Sciences is our degree, we knew nothing about the specifics of lipid synthesis or the practicalities of building experiments ourselves. When we do labs in our degree we get protocols, steps to follow and guidance on what’s meant to happen, so this was, at least for me, something entirely new.’

Reiss: ‘We were quite problem focused. So instead of coming up with something that we thought was cool, we looked online for existing problems and then tried to solve those. It’s given us a whole other perspective on our studies and an outlet to apply the stuff we’ve learnt, which is really cool. We’ve built on the stuff we’ve studied at a much deeper level.’

Tell us more about the market research you’ve done – how did it influence your project and in what ways is yours a novel approach?

We’re taking an underused resource... and diverting it to provide a solution for a system that currently creates an enormous carbon footprint. Shreya Singhal Undergraduate, Department of Life Sciences

Shreya: ‘Providing farmed fish with enough omega 3 is a huge sustainability problem, and there are a lot of people trying to solve it. A characteristic of synthetic biology is that it often provides a thousand different ways to solve a problem. Our approach is new because we’re using a bacterial platform, as opposed to genetically engineering plants to produce omega 3. We’re also planning to work from a precursor, which is essentially an input chemical, so we’re not getting the cell to synthesise the omega 3 from scratch, it’s more a conversion process. We’ve chosen to use flaxseed oil because it can be sustainably farmed and the oil part is underused.

We feed our precursor – the flaxseed oil – to enzymes, that convert it to produce the omega 3 that fish need. So we’re taking a currently underused resource that at the minute doesn’t have a lot of value or market potential, and diverting it to provide a solution for a system that currently creates an enormous carbon footprint.’ 

Reiss: ‘Our approach is significantly less expensive because it’s sustainably scalable in a way that many other approaches aren’t. Although we’re engineering bacteria, we’re not producing anything inside of the cell itself, and there’s nothing new being created, it’s just a conversion process that’s happening outside of the cell, so it fulfills certain industry regulations too.’ 

What’s been challenging, and has the pandemic affected progress?

Shreya: ‘The first time we made a pitch felt kind of ridiculous, like we had no idea what we were doing! The project has become a lot more structured as time’s gone on – we’ve had to figure out what we’re good at and what we really need advice on… it’s been a journey! We very much would’ve liked to have been in the lab by now, but obviously that hasn’t been able to happen this summer with the pandemic. In the meantime, it’s been a sort of marathon of reading research papers to figure out everything that we could possibly know about this area – we’re still learning and looking, finding new nuances, questions and references to dive into.’

Reiss: ‘The business section – all the market research, competitions, business development – has been largely unaffected by the pandemic because we can do that virtually. The lab stuff has definitely been affected, but I’d say in perhaps quite a positive way – we’ll be way more efficient and effective when we do eventually get back into the lab because we’ve been able to plan at a much more gradual, granular level than we would have done if access to the lab hadn’t been restricted because of lockdown. We’ve been reading such a wide variety of papers that it’s given us new avenues of achieving the same goal, so if something doesn’t work we can pursue it in a different way. In fact, a few papers we came across during this time made us realise that we could increase our yield by fifty percent, which is a powerful thing to say in pitches and something that we can benefit from in the lab now too.’

Anna: ‘It’s been great not to lose our thread with our work over summer and because of the quarantine. Since we’re quite a big team – there are six members – we can support each other around our other commitments. Most of us are studying different degrees – we’re pretty interdisciplinary – so exams and workload have been staggered, which is helpful.’

What’s your interest in enterprise?

Reiss: ‘One thing I’ve learnt is how many start-ups are out there trying to tackle sustainability issues. For me, enterprise is a tool to solve problems and also deliver economic benefits. The two biggest selling points of Synthesea are that we’re sustainable and that we’re up to eighty percent cheaper than fish oil. That’s really powerful because, if it’s not cheaper and there’s no economic benefit, then change won’t happen. So enterprise can be a tool for achieving sustainable goals.’

Ting: ‘Many of us didn’t join the SynBIC society primarily for enterprise. Many of us were there to get a team together for the iGEM competition. This has now taken us in a different direction. Making our research have applicable real-world impact has perhaps inevitably led to enterprise, and a focus on viability.’

Reiss: ‘I think learning to conduct ourselves in the right way has been a big lesson for me. Talking to customers and finding out what exactly it is they want, learning how to reach out to people. Those first few calls with customers were so nerve-wracking! Now it’s become something I’m way more confident at. So yeah, there’s been quite a lot of personal growth I think.’

What advice do you have for other students who have ideas for developing their research interests as enterprise?

A big thank you to the whole Imperial ecosystem... If you’re an Imperial student you’re in a great place so my advice is just to get started engaging. Ting Lee Postgraduate, Department of Life Sciences

Ting: ‘Imperial’s such a good place to do this – it just keeps throwing opportunities at you! The only reason any of us met is because we were part of the SynBIC society – so a big thank you to them, and actually just a big thank you to the whole Imperial ecosystem – it’s very conducive to start-ups. FoNS MAD, SynBIC, the Advanced Hackspace Competition, Enterprise Lab’s many events, like Pitch and Mix, and encouragement in the form of the Pioneer Fund. If you’re an Imperial student you’re in a great place, there’s so much support and help available, so my advice is just to get started engaging with all of that.’

Anna: ‘Even if you don’t have an idea yet, just be brave and come to one of those events and meet people who are like-minded. You can find an idea and get started just like we did. When I joined I was in my first term of first year, and just a month before I’d heard of synthetic biology for the first time as an area of science. I’ve learnt so much over the past year.’

Even if you don’t have an idea yet, just be brave and come to one of those events and meet people who are like-minded. Anna Schwarzenbach Undergraduate, Department of Life Sciences

Shreya: ‘Yeah, my advice is find a team, because it’s so much more fun this way! I was so close to not going to the first competition where we all met – it was complete chance and I’m really glad that I did.’

Reiss: ‘I’ve become less of a procrastinator. This process has forced me to become much more time efficient. At the beginning I put a lot of things off. My advice is to just get started and be very proactive in your approach. Try and find opportunities for yourself as opposed to waiting for opportunities to come to you.’

What’s next?

Ting: ‘We’re very much looking for a way to get into a lab. Obviously at Imperial and elsewhere access to labs is restricted at the moment due to COVID, so although we have funding from some of the competitions we’ve won, we just don’t have the lab space to progress.’

Reiss: ‘At first this just seemed like a cool little project. As its progressed I’ve become more and more interested in how we can use synthetic biology to build more sustainable production systems and a more sustainable future. It’s definitely becoming more of a calling in that sense! Not having access to the lab because of COVID has been one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced. Though we’re not officially a company, that’s definitely a direction we’re interested in. We just need the opportunity to get into the lab now to make it happen!’

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Claudia Cannon

Claudia Cannon
Faculty of Natural Sciences

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