Meet the Cork start-up building the Raspberry Pi for synthetic biology

26 Sep 2017

3D printers are often used in constructing affordable synbio tools. Image: Tricia Daniel/Shutterstock

The biology revolution will be synthesised, with help from companies such as Cell-Free Tech building the ‘Raspberry Pi’ for synthetic biology.

There is an underground movement growing across the globe that seeks not to overthrow governments, institutions or society, but the very fabric of nature itself.

These biohackers work in a field referred to as synthetic biology – or synbio, for short – and are trying to create some incredible things while democratising an expensive scientific pursuit.

To name just one recent example, a team from Worcester Polytechnic Institute took a spinach leaf and its complex vascular network, and used it to transport blood around a human heart.

Now, a Cork start-up called Cell-Free Tech is aiming to give biohackers the ability to drastically reduce the cost and time needed for (as you would guess) creating things without cells.

Cell-Free Tech is a matter of efficiency in that its technology is able to extract the 5pc of cells that are responsible for reading DNA and writing proteins, and eliminating the rest, effectively giving synbio researchers a blank canvas to work from.

“It’s a little bit like the Raspberry Pi of biology,” said the start-up’s CEO, Tom Meany, in conversation with

“It’s a simple, stripped-down, low-cost, easy-to-use computer for people to get experience with writing DNA commands and executing them.”

In numerical terms, Cell-Free Tech’s technology can produce the same amount of proteins in a tube as big as a finger, as you would get over 24 hours from a cell culture in a much larger 2-litre container.

With these proteins, biohackers can produce a multitude of different things, such as chromaproteins, which allow someone to colour clothing however they like (“Hot pink is a personal favourite of ours,” Meany quipped).

“One really beautiful thing about the cell-free extract is that because it’s no longer an organism, because it’s been broken down, it’s no longer a genetically modified organism,” he said.

“So, you can take a piece of DNA and use it as a coding language, just as you would with any kind of punch-card system or an analogue computer. You’re able to program with DNA outside of a biological lab, which is a game-changer.”

Overlapping of disciplines

While just a team of three for now, it is safe to say that Meany leads a company with some rather diverse backgrounds, given that his is in physics and semiconductor production; his chief scientific officer, Ian McDermott, is a protein engineer; and Helena Steiner is the chief design officer.

This overlapping of disciplines is something that Meany feels quite strongly is part of the future of synbio, particularly with the onset of automation and artificial intelligence.

“You’ll have everyone [working in synbio], from automation experts to those with physics backgrounds, who are moving fluids around, making everything cheaper and making everything work a little bit faster. That’s Semiconductors 101.”

One of the other companies that Meany points to at the forefront of DIY biotech is Bento Lab, a start-up that produces a home DNA-testing kit that can also perform the CRISPR gene-editing technique.

Recent funding success

Cell-Free Tech’s success grew out from RebelBio, the Cork-based accelerator for synbio companies founded by SOSV.

The start-up was announced in May as part of the fourth cohort for the four-month programme.

Under RebelBio, each start-up gains an investment worth more than $100,000, access to lab and office space as well as a network of hundreds of mentors.

Cell-Free Tech has already attracted interest from a variety of differently scaled operations, from the individual biohacker all the way up to researchers working in major academic institutions. Meany hopes this will aid attempts to bridge the two communities.

You can hardly blame their interest when this technology costs a fraction of the average €10,000 needed to be spent to get the same result.

With the funding from RebelBio, Cell-Free Tech is now hoping to prototype the kit at a much larger scale to get it, and biological research, out to the masses.

Disclosure: SOSV is an investor in Silicon Republic

3D printers are often used in constructing affordable synbio tools. Image: Tricia Daniel/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic