SOSV’s Bill Liao: ‘Synthetic biology is as important as the discovery of fire’

16 May 2018

SOSV partner Bill Liao. Image: SOSV

SOSV recently surpassed Bill Gates as the world’s leading investor in synbio start-ups. We talk to Bill Liao about why this is such a hotbed of start-up activity.

In early 2017, we reported how Sean O’Sullivan’s venture capital firm SOSV’s IndieBio synthetic biology (synbio) accelerator topped CB Insights’ list of the most active investors in this new space for disruption.

Well, SOSV has done it again and, according to life sciences analyst Calvin Schmidt, the Cork and San Francisco venture firm is still the world’s leading investor in synbio, surpassing even Microsoft founder and former CEO Bill Gates as well as tech investor stalwarts Khosla Ventures and Y Combinator.

‘Our ability to harness the power of life as precision engineering is going to determine our future as a species’

To get a sense of activity, according to Schmidt’s analysis, SOSV led the leader board with 20 rounds of investment in synbio ventures in 2017 alone, ahead of Alexandria (5) and Bill Gates (3).

table of synthetic biology investors led by SOSV and Bill Gates

Source: Calvin Schmidt

Overall, Schmidt estimates that synbio start-ups raised more than $1.4bn of venture funding in 2017, setting a new record.

A science rebellion born in Cork

The fact that a leader in this field began out of Cork from a standing start just four years ago is pretty amazing. We decided to put a few questions to one of the authors of this achievement, Bill Liao.

‘Four years ago, I had a vision of SOSV being a world leader in life sciences and Ireland being a new carbon valley’

Liao is the co-founder of social network Xing and is a partner at SOSV.

An influential investor and co-founder of the CoderDojo movement with James Whelton, Liao recently penned a thought-provoking piece about synbio on Medium titled Three biotech megatrends that will shape 2018 and beyond.

How would you sum up the synbio opportunity?

It’s as important as the discovery of fire.

Our ability to harness the power of life as precision engineering is going to determine our future as a species.

Our early attempts at synthetic biology, though clumsy by today’s standards, yielded amazing results. The mass manufacture of human analogue insulin is what ensures that my daughter is able to live a long, healthy life despite her type 1 diabetes.

Now, everything you might imagine to make or cure can yield to synthetic biology and modern life sciences engineering.

It’s always been the case that the greatest source of invention occurs at the borders between disciplines, and here we see our deep understanding of life colliding with our mastery of information technology.

At the same time, the real costs of engineering biological systems have reduced 10m-fold on 12 years. Plotted on the same graph, Moore’s law looks like a flat line.

Do you think that the opportunity is understood widely enough?

There have been false starts and there are plodding incumbent systems in place that have led people to some kind of blindness to the true scope of the opportunity.

There are many easy excuses that people rattle off rather than paying attention. Many tech investors ignore anything to do with biology.

‘Only through true mastery of life sciences will we reach our full potential as a space-faring species’

The existing life sciences mega-players are often focused very narrowly on therapeutics and the accompanying overregulated pace of progress.

Four years ago, I had a vision of SOSV being a world leader in life sciences and Ireland being a new carbon valley.

It’s been a fast-paced ride of success on the one hand and an uphill battle on the other. So, while SOSV has thrived, the evidence is that the scope of the opportunity is not widely understood elsewhere.

For instance, one of our RebelBio companies, CyCa OncoSolutions, has developed a biotech nano-machine that is cheap to make and actually works.

This miracle of synthetic biology engineering is, in my view, Nobel prize-worthy as it solves the thorny issue of delivering genetic modifications into living cells without harming them.

We are only investors in the company so far and they moved from India to Ireland. The chances are, we will lose them to the UK.

Solving the ‘delivery’ problem as they have, it’s a €1bn opportunity and people just don’t get it.

There is no condition that cannot be solved genetically if you have access to measurement, design and delivery systems that work deterministically to produce effective interventions.

We have exquisitely accurate and cheap measurement now for genetic and epigenetic sequencing. We have incredibly precise genetic editing capabilities with CRISPR-Cas9 and other techniques. Now, with CyCa technology, we also have a non-toxic nano-machine cellular delivery system to implement those interventions.

The scope of the opportunity is to have the world’s single largest industry worth trillions annually.

Just through RebelBio, in the last four years, we have seen successful companies that make milk without cows, cannabinoids without hemp, fabric from seaweed, vibrant colour dyes from bacteria, oral vaccines from algae you can eat, electricity from wastewater, protein from beer waste, and so many more.

There is no field of human endeavour that is not going to be impacted by this technology, which will be more ubiquitous than computers or the internet or mobile phones.

Only through true mastery of life sciences will we reach our full potential as a space-faring species. The commercial opportunity is simply without parallel and yet, most people’s concepts of synthetic biology date from a time before the term even existed.

Calvin Schmidt’s study places SOSV ahead of Bill Gates, Khosla and Y Combinator for its number of rounds. Can you describe SOSV’s methodology and how it works with synbio start-ups to unlock their potential?

Seven years ago, SOSV started to gain competence in running programmes, and forging small groups of makers, engineers and academics into entrepreneurial start-up teams.

We have gained mastery in turning scientists into entrepreneurs and team players, as scientists are generally well educated and smart and so can readily learn new skills in a short time.

Four years ago, we launched the first life sciences accelerator in the world on Cork at UCC, and that has gone on to become IndieBio in Silicon Valley and RebelBio in Imperial College White City in London.

We attract hundreds of the world’s top synthetic biology and life sciences start-ups to our programmes and we have a solid track record of forging and bringing out more than 40 such investable companies each year.

This has given us access to an unprecedented investor syndicate globally and an intensely valuable alumni network and, as a result, we derisk these companies at multiple stages.

We also give them wider exposure than they could otherwise achieve and we also have a best-on-planet mentor network to guide them in every area.

The results of curating this specialisation speak for themselves in the numbers and the impact, where we are truly making what was once impossible, inevitable.

Disclosure: SOSV is an investor in Silicon Republic

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