National hub to support synthetic biology extended with £5.5m funding commitment


Researchers at lab bench

SynbiCITE, the UK’s National Centre for the Industrial Translation of Synthetic Biology, has received a £5.5m funding commitment from SynBioVen.

The funding will enable the Imperial-hosted centre to continue to support synthetic biology startups and SMEs, strengthen the emerging UK bioeconomy and help unlock the societal benefits of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology, also known as engineering biology, is a relatively new field that combines methodologies from engineering and biology to design or re-design biological systems to produce useful and sustainable new products.

Synthetic biology has the potential to transform several sectors and address urgent societal challenges. The UK has a leading position in the fundamental science, and the sector is growing. It is critical that the support for fledgling startups continues. Professor Mary Ryan Vice Provost (Research and Enterprise), Imperial College London

The field has a wide variety of real-world applications in cleantech, healthcare and other domains. Using synthetic DNA, cells can be programmed to turn renewable resources such as plants and plant by-products into fossil fuel-free plastics and synthetic fuels, and to produce new pharmaceutical products, vaccines, and materials.

SynbiCITE was established in 2013 to accelerate innovations like these, originally using funding from UK Research & Innovation under the body’s Innovation and Knowledge Centres programme. It has provided synthetic biology startups and SMEs from across the UK with expertise, technical facilities, and business training that have so far helped 27 companies achieve a combined market capitalisation of £790 million.

The centre can now be extended thanks to the funding from SynBioVen, a new VC-backed investment vehicle that has an interest in supporting the UK synthetic biology sector and is also investing in synthetic biology startups.

Professor Mary Ryan, Imperial’s Vice Provost for Research and Enterprise, said: “Synthetic biology has the potential to transform not one sector but several, and address urgent societal challenges in health, nutrition and sustainability. The UK has a leading position in the fundamental science, and the sector is growing thanks to support from initiatives like SynbiCITE. It is critical that the support for fledgling startups continues and I am delighted that SynbiCITE has received this backing from SynBioVen.”

The Rt Hon Lord Willetts FRS, Co-Chair of SynBioVen with Sir David Harding and former UK Minister for Universities and Science, said: “I am delighted with the new partnership between the Imperial-hosted SynbiCITE and SynBioVen. The development of the UK’s capacity in synthetic biology is extremely important for the green economy and moving towards zero carbon. Synthetic biology is a key general-purpose technology and has made massive progress over the last decade. The country now has a strong research base and well over 100 startups and SMEs. In addition to the funding for the centre, SynBioVen has £15 million available to support the development of these companies through investment which is vital for effective industrial translation and company growth.” 

De-risking commercialisation of synthetic biology

Professors Paul Freemont and Richard Kitney in lab
Professors Paul Freemont and Richard Kitney

SynbiCITE’s technical facilities include the London Biofoundry, a unique suite of advanced equipment for tasks such as DNA analysis and production backed by technical expertise. This allows businesses to access the workflows they need to develop proofs of concept that allow them to subsequently build the technical capacities they need in-house.

SynbiCITE has worked with 80 companies, including a core group of 27 that it has closely supported and have gone on to receive major investments. They are part of a UK bioeconomy that the government estimates to be worth £220 billion.

The centre also offers training including a four-day mini-MBA that helps synthetic biology entrepreneurs, who often come from scientific rather than commercial backgrounds, gain the commercial skills they need to succeed in the biotechnology sector. SynbiCITE has also established an influential conference for the sector, SynbiTECH, that has helped the community build international links.

The centre’s support has helped companies to successfully translate research into commercial technologies. Importantly, it has also de-risked the companies from the point of view of investors, mitigating the so-called ‘valley of death’ in which promising deep technology startups struggle to receive the investment needed to grow because the returns on investment they offer are too uncertain.

“VCs are naturally interested in the financial aspects of it,” said Professor Richard Kitney, Co-Director of SynbiCITE. “They might, for example, invest in five companies and calculate that three will fail. The companies we support can be expected to have a much higher success rate because we support them scientifically and technically as well. The funding from SynBioVen will continue to support our national programme to de-risk investment in the UK synthetic biology sector.”

Professor Paul Freemont, Co-Director of SynbiCITE, added: “Over the last few years, synthetic biology has accelerated the rapid growth of a new generation of biotechnology companies focusing on diverse applications. This rapid growth is dependent on a pipeline of new and innovative startups with blue-sky ideas and exciting applications. This investment now allows SynbiCITE to continue to establish and support this pipeline such that the UK continues to become a global centre for synthetic biology innovation.”

Since its inception, SynbiCITE has worked with 80 companies, including a core group of 27 new ventures that it has closely supported and have gone on to receive major investments. They are part of a UK bioeconomy – which includes synthetic biology and other biotechnologies – that the UK government estimates to be worth £220 billion, a figure it expects to double by 2030. Market research company BCC Research has predicted that the synethic biology market will grow from $9.5 billion in 2021 to $33.2 billion in 2026 at a compound growth rate of 28.4%. 

Success stories

Among the companies to have received support from SynbiCITE are: 

  • Colorifix, a Cambridge and Norwich-based company founded in 2016 that uses genetically modified microorganisms to turn renewable feedstocks such as plant by-products into natural dyes, and to apply and fix these dyes to textiles. This provides an alternative to industrial dyes with reduced reliance on energy, water and toxic chemicals. The company recently raised £18 million in a series B investment round led by fashion giant H&M.
  • Scindo, an Oxford University startup launched in 2020 developing a recycling technology uses enzymes to break down hard-to-recycle plastics into molecular components that can be re-used as raw materials for a range of industries. Scindo has successfully completed pre-seed and seed funding rounds. 
  • LabGenius, originally an Imperial startup, that is developing a robotics- and machine learning-based platform to speed up the design of new antibodies that could be used as therapies for cancer, inflammatory conditions, and other diseases. The company completed a $25 million Series A round in 2020.

Dr Jing Pang, Industry Partnerships and Commercialisation Executive for Imperial’s Faculty of Engineering, said: “The continuing development of the innovation ecosystem at the College has allowed us to make an increasingly strong offer to valued partners such as SynBioVen – who are benefiting from becoming part of the ecosystem, accessing early insights into new ventures and technologies, and in return are offering valuable support to help the ecosystem flourish.”


David Silverman

David Silverman

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Synthetic-biology, White-City-Campus, Translation, Engineering-Bioeng, Entrepreneurship, Comms-strategy-Entrepreneurial-ecosystem, Enterprise
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