Sean O’Sullivan: ‘Synthetic biology is like the PC industry before it took off’

13 Aug 2015

Systems biology technology pioneered in Cork has been compared to the early days of the PC industry by successful investor Sean O'Sullivan.

The synthetic biology revolution being pioneered in Cork and that is about to storm the world was compared to early days of the PC industry before the internet and cloud by successful tech investor Sean O’Sullivan.

Speaking with at the IndieBio Demo Day in Cork last night (12 August), O’Sullivan said that Cork has an opportunity to corner a market opportunity that could do what motor cars did for Detroit and what electronics have done for Shenzen in China.

Indie Bio Demo Day was the culmination of the €800,000 (US$900,000) investment made by SOSventures in the IndieBio accelerator programme.

SOSventures’ IndieBio accelerator, 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 nine start-ups drawn to Cork from Austria, Canada, France, the US and other parts of Ireland have each received approximately US$100,000 each, which is made up of cash investment, access to state-of-the-art lab space in University College Cork and mentorship from SOSventures’ global network of top experts from industry and academic partners.

O’Sullivan said that synthetic biology owes its origins to the early 1980s when a company called Genentech created human insulin. Before that insulin was gathered from slaughterhouses from the pancreases of cows and pigs and people ran the gauntlet of contamination.

Synthetic biology paved the way for well-known drugs like Viagra.

“But now what’s happening is the price point for creating these organisms that produce the outputs are now possible. Instead of spending US$1bn for scientists and entrepreneurs to create, now it can be done to the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars and create products that accelerate our ability to mimic biology.”

Cork could be the next Silicon Valley, Detroit or Shenzen


O’Sullivan runs SOSV, the US$250m venture capital fund, which focuses on funding more than 120 start-ups every year. His first company, MapInfo, grew to a US$200m public company. Among his successful investments to date are Netflix, which just announced 1m users in Ireland and the UK in its first year, and Harmonix, creator of Guitar Hero.

O’Sullivan is also co-credited with inventing the term cloud computing and he said that he always has an eye on new areas before they become public knowledge.

“What we are doing here in Ireland and with IndieBio, which SOSV runs in San Francisco and Cork, we are pioneers creating a whole host of new companies that will lead the way for these innovations to hit the world.”

He said that several of the companies have already been funded to the tune of millions of dollars.

“We are seeing a remarkable uptick. The general population and user-base is not yet aware of what an exciting opportunity this is. But they are learning pretty rapidly

“This is like the PC industry before it took off. People didn’t realise what a PC was going to be or the internet or that there was going to be cloud computing.

“IndieBio is about getting in front, being a leader and have the world pile in behind you.”

Cork at the heart of a new industrial revolution

O’Sullivan said that 10 of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies are already based in Cork. “There’s an incredible knowledge base, production base and skills base for how to manufacture things using synthetic biology.

“In Ireland it is more concentrated than any place in the world, so if we can leverage these billions of dollars in resources and, more importantly, the knowledge base of the people here, bring in world leading scientists like we did tonight with the teams from all over the world, as well as Ireland, then we can leverage what we’ve got going.”

He said industries tend to concentrate and this is the opportunity for Cork.

“For a long time the motor vehicle industry was based in Detroit and right now the electronics industry has moved to Shenzen in China.

“These have created massive numbers of jobs and made a huge impact around the world. We are hoping we can get some of that going here and there is quite a receptive audience from the Government in trying to encourage that.

“In particular, the things that would help would be better co-working facilities for bio companies, wet lab facilities that are more accessible so people can come here and get productive quite early.

“You want them to come here and stay and several of the companies intend to do that and that’s a good start,” O’Sullivan said.

Disclaimer: SOSV is an investor in

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