What Synthetic Biology Platform Companies Get Wrong
In the last few years, massive strides in applied genomic technologies, automation, and AI have created a renaissance of biotech companies seeking to tap nature’s preeminence. Many of these organizations fashion themselves as early members of the fledgling synthetic biology industry. Rather suddenly, synthetic biology has transitioned from a largely esoteric academic field to a commercial enterprise delivering improvements across various applications, including natural product discovery, biomanufacturing, ingredient and specialty chemical production, agriculture, therapeutic development, and more.
With so much opportunity at hand, it’s relatively easy for these organizations and their investors to get caught up in the excitement and promise of their algorithms and intellectual property (IP). In the process, they often overlook an essential detail in their business strategy—establishing a clear path to commercialization from the onset.
Missing the Mark(et): Commercial Hiccups & Roadblocks in Synthetic Biology
Synthetic biology companies often herald their discovery platforms as their value generator, combining technological developments and internal IP to drive product discovery and source efficiencies for a slew of industries. Thanks to these efforts, the industry has already produced incredible commercial successes, like the Impossible Burger, Codexis’s proprietary enzyme developed for Merck’s Januvia®, and Amyris’s bio-ingredient and consumer brand portfolio.
Despite massive strides, the nascent field has experienced some growing pains, even among some of its highest-profile representatives.
The common thread? Once they reach late-stage product development and commercial manufacturing, these companies run into trouble. Suddenly, the brilliance of a synthetic biology platform loses its luster, as investors realize that little emphasis was placed on developing end-to-end solutions required for delivering a real product to customers.
In short, some synthetic biology companies have an overzealous devotion to selling the discovery potential of their platform. They pour attention and resources into this “value generator” without placing nearly enough emphasis on bringing candidate products from their synthetic biology platform to fruition. A dangerous “we’ll worry about that when we get there” attitude takes root.
By not worrying about the most significant hurdles—like scale-up, speed-to-market, or technology transfer—until the end, companies risk doubling back, blowing their production timelines, disappointing investors, and draining their resources.
Getting it Right: Emphasizing Market Delivery in Synthetic Biology Platforms
Let’s be clear: synthetic biology platforms and the IP that powers them are critical. But investors should seek out biotechnology and synthetic biology companies that can also streamline product commercialization and in addition to discovery.
So, what are strong indications that a company can follow through on its ideas? An ideal synthetic biology or biotechnology company should…
1). Focus on building a complete product pipeline
The most successful synthetic biology companies will prioritize the creation of an end-to-end pipeline that goes beyond discovery and basic research early. These organizations understand that scale-up is THE bottleneck they must solve. Synthetic biology companies that distribute funding appropriately to make this possible will be more able to help predict and solve challenges associated with late-stage development, biomanufacturing, and commercialization.
2). Know how to get products to market fast
Biotechnology and synthetic biology companies must be able to react to new demands and quickly get problem-solving products to the market. While there is an appreciation that most innovation takes time, platforms are supposed to increase efficiency. If product timelines appear drawn out, it may throw doubt on the platform’s fitness. If the timelines seem unrealistic and simplistic, it may imply the company hasn’t prepared for commercialization bottlenecks. For this reason, it’s worth diving deep into an organization’s tech transfer strategies as that can be crucial for scaling up or licensing out expeditiously.
A well-built synthetic biology pipeline should be able to model product development and make realistic predictions about product delivery timelines. If a company clearly emphasizes quickly reaching a minimum viable product delivery and has taken steps to understand a product’s complete life cycle, there’s good reason to believe they can deliver on their promises.
3). Know when to optimize
In science, we all love to tinker, but knowing when to tinker is an art form. Some companies spend a lot of time optimizing product characteristics or performance in earlier phases. While this makes sense from a research perspective, it can be inefficient from a product perspective. If a maximally optimized product just can’t be grown at large scales, a company will need to double back late in the game, which causes massive timeline delays.
It can be hard to predict what commercial challenges will arise over time, so it’s essential to know when to hit vital performance thresholds and move on. Organizations can always further optimize product performance once they have scale-up essentially mastered.
4). Have the skills to adapt tech for customers and target products
The best synthetic biology companies have a knack for problem-solving and niche filling. Certainly, they should pick target products that match the strengths of their platform. However, they should also be able to modify their approach to create a better fit. Obsessing over the IP of a singular platform can create blind spots and missed opportunities. Target companies that think creatively and work flexibly, using their platform(s) and IP more as a guide than a bible.
Reinventing Life, One Product at a Time
As long-time synthetic biology advocates, it is thrilling to see the field get the public and investor attention it richly deserves. But as synthetic biology companies, we all need to think more strategically about how we return that value to our society. As synthetic biology reinvents how we view life, we must also be willing to augment our approach and renew our focus on delivering products to market, not just elegant IP.
Like many in SynBio, I founded Provectus Algae because I want to make a difference for our planet. I firmly believe that you can’t make a difference if your synthetic biology platform can’t deliver a product to market.