Cork could be home to the biggest revolution since computers: synthetic biology

21 Jul 2015

Cork could be home to one of the biggest scientific revolutions that could yet eclipse digital. That’s the view of Bill Liao, partner with SOSventures, the venture capital firm that has elected to accelerate nine global biotech start-ups from Cork city.

As Liao explains it, SOSventures is one of the few venture capital players with a global reach to have cottoned on to this opportunity while Silicon Valley still hunts for the next app or digital disruption.

He explains that the world of biotech is being democratised, with costs falling rapidly. “In 2003, the human genome project was completed at a cost of US$2.7bn. Today you can go to 23andMe and get a sequencing of your own genome for US$260.”

SOSventures’ new accelerator IndieBio, now in its second year, has attracted some of the best synthetic biology start-ups from around the globe, as well as indigenous entrepreneurs. The IndieBio programme is designed to support individuals and companies with an early-stage prototype, invest in them with cash and laboratory space in UCC, as well as mentorship from top experts in industry and develop them into viable companies.

Nine global start-ups, from North America, Europe and Ireland, are currently located in Cork and are working with the Indie Bio team, SOSventures and a global network of mentors and advisers to bring the companies to investment stage.

Tackling some interesting problems


Prospective Research Inc’s Dakota Hamill and Jake Cotter, who are working on a revolutionary new way to discover new medicines from Streptomycees. Photo by Tomas Tyner, UCC.

The nine start-ups in Indie Bio are tackling some of the most interesting and unique problems from developing yogurts that will make people live longer, to working on revolutionary ways to develop new medicines, to creating peanuts without allergens and ocean-friendly fish-farming feed.

Another company that SOSventures has invested in called Pembient has already developed a solution to illegal rhino poaching by developing a genuine rhino horn in the lab using DNA and synthetic materials. This has the potential to disrupt the multi-billion dollar ivory trade and save the rhino species.

‘The whole planet is about to have access to this biotechnology at a price we can afford. Start-up entrepreneurs who previously needed millions and millions to investigate prototypes can do so for tens of thousands’

“DNA is and always has been digital. As we build bigger and better libraries of both genes and animals the impact is enormous as we are basically reverse-engineering life,” Liao explains.

Companies that have already graduated from the IndieBio accelerator include Muufri, a company that used science to produce milk without cows, and Hyacinth, a company that made medical cannabinoids with anti-cancer properties but without the use of marijuana.

As well as the nine companies in Cork, IndieBio is also accelerating 12 synthetic biology start-ups in San Francisco, including a company called Clara Foods, which makes egg whites without the need for chickens by convincing microorganisms to make eggs.

Among the nine being accelerated in Cork are Aranex Biotech, a company that is creating a peanut without allergens; Saphium, which is convincing bacteria to create a biodegradable plastic, and Efflorus, a company that is making one of the most expensive fragrances in Asia – Oud – out of yeast instead of an endangered plant species called agarwood.

Two Irish teams include GlowDX, which is creating an inexpensive diagnostic DNA computer to diagnose tropical diseases, and Sothic Bioscience, which is aiming to save the Horsehoe Crab by creating artificial blood.

“If you look at GlowDX, they have created a device that if you take a patient’s blood and put it in the oven for 60 minutes it glows if the patient has dengue fever or not.”

Biology has become more deterministic

But why is synthetic biology only possible now? Liao points out that the difference is economies of scale. Just like cloud computing made it possible to start software companies at a fraction of the cost, advances in automation and digital processing means scientists can do experiments faster than ever before.

“This is making biology more deterministic,” Liao explains.

“The whole planet is about to have access to this biotechnology at a price we can afford. Start-up entrepreneurs who previously needed millions and millions to investigate prototypes can do so for tens of thousands. This is why we are focused on this area and it is one of our biggest moves at SOSventures.”

‘If we can get behind this now this will underwrite Ireland’s prosperity indefinitely’

Liao likens the impact of synthetic biology to that of putting the first personal computers in the hands of children in the 1980s.

“We had the biggest surge in innovation in human history thanks to the computer revolution.

“Just as the cost of computers came down to a point where normal entrepreneurs could build major businesses we noticed that over the last seven years the cost of biotech is coming down and the speed of automation is accelerating.

“That gives me the same feeling as when I got my first computer in decades past.

“Just seeing the ability of the average entrepreneur engage with this technology and scientists – this is going to be the biggest source of valuation in human history.”

IndieBio will be holding a summer party and demo day at the Old Cork Gaol on 12 August and Liao is encouraging potential investors and entrepreneurs to come along.

Liao said that Cork city and county, with its massive pharmaceutical and biotech manufacturing base, local universities and colleges as well as the natural entrepreneurial mindset of its citizens, could be well placed to be at the spearhead of this new industrial revolution.

“I am calling on every investor in Ireland – angels and venture capitalists – to come to our programme and see what is possible. If we can get behind this now this we will underwrite Ireland’s prosperity indefinitely.

“No one has yet taken the crown for being the synthetic biology centre of the universe. Cork has the chance – so there’s no excuse.”

9 synthetic biology start-ups to watch

Ageria: Developing foods beneficial to health and longevity.

Aranex Biotech: Creating a peanut without allergens

BioCellection: Creating an ocean-friendly fish-farming feed that provides the nutritional requirements of commercially-farmed fish without relying on by-catch or trawler-caught fish produce

Efflorus: Producing high-value fragrance compounds from micro-organisms

GlowDX: Creating a diagnostic DNA computer for neglected tropical disease

PiLi: Developing colours for manufacturing from natural sources that won’t hurt the planet or customers’ pockets

Prospective Research Inc: Working on a revolutionary way to discover new medicines from Streptomyces

Saphium: Designing bioplastic-producing algae that eat CO2 and release cheaply-purifiable plastic granules, ready for big or small manufacturing, including 3D printing

Sothic Bioscience: Aiming to save the Horseshoe Crab by creating artificial Limulus Blood

DISCLAIMER: SOSventures is an investor in

Cork Harbour image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years