The next big (microscopic) thing: Startups are building the future with synthetic biology

Phil-Morle-Main-Sequence board chairs startup team

Main Sequence partner Phil Morle. Source: Supplied/Jessica Hromsa.

Towards the end of his life, Steve Jobs came to a realisation: “I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.”

He wasn’t wrong. We are in the midst of the most important technological revolution of our time. If the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted anything, it was that the future of therapeutics, sustainability, and even food (more on this later), will likely eventuate through the many possibilities of biology.

However, in order to make a profound impact on the way a vast array of solutions are built, the right streams of technology, science and industry prowess have to come together to enable it.

The power of nature’s smallest elements

Biology and nature’s smallest elements have formed the foundation of many leading innovations, for example, insulin that is used for treating diabetes. Once upon a time we would have to harvest insulin from a pig’s pancreas, killing thousands of pigs to get a litre of insulin to help humans with diabetes stay alive.

For decades now, insulin has been brewed just like you make beer, using yeast (a tiny organism) as the machine — the engine that produces the insulin. This practice, known as precision fermentation, changed the game for the better.

When we build with biology, we can make nature-identical molecules that would normally grow inside a plant or an animal directly, without the waste, in less time, at a lower cost and with a smaller environmental footprint. The more we look at nature, the more we see that nature has solved most of the problems that the world has — we just haven’t discovered them yet.

A Main Sequence portfolio company, Samsara, offers another example of this. The machine at the heart of Samsara is an enzyme that evolved in a Japanese rubbish dump, which is now being used as the key to infinitely recycle the world’s plastic.

The team has used synthetic biology to effectively speed up evolution so that the enzyme works better. Instead of taking 20 years to break down the plastic, it can do it in 10 minutes. Thus using deep tech to create a whole new way of solving the problem.

These are just two revolutionary examples of how inspiration can be taken from nature and applied to benefit our daily lives. Synthetic biology provides us with the tools to deliver on bio-based engineering solutions and to build new ways of doing things. The technology has come together to enable us to build biological factories to make new things — and do it very efficiently.

Scratching the surface

While exciting, we’re only scratching the surface of this revolutionary technology. From alternative proteins to biodegradable materials, the possibilities are endless. What started in the healthcare industry is expanding into many sectors, yet investors are paying relatively little attention to the huge business potential.

McKinsey estimated in a May 2020 report that as much as 60% of the global economy’s physical inputs could be made using synthetic biology, resulting in direct economic benefits of at least US$1.7 trillion ($2.36 trillion) between 2030 and 2040. We are at a unique time in history. The technology has matured to the point where it can make a difference at the scale that’s required.

An area of interest for us at Main Sequence is how this synthetic biology capability can transform the way we produce food for decades to come. We recently launched Eden Brew, a company that will be making milk using precision fermentation in which yeast produces the proteins that are normally made inside a cow.

Another of our portfolio companies, Nourish Ingredients, is making fats in the same way and is an example of a growing cohort of inspiring Australian companies that can build a massive new industry together, selling game-changing, nutritious food at scale to the rest of the world.

Precision fermentation is already enhancing food production, not just in cost, but in capabilities, speed and volume. The result will be improved efficiency of current industrial food production and supply chains.

Rising to the challenge

The biggest tech innovations of our time will arise from the engineering of biology. To move the needle on solving tomorrow’s global challenges, we need to throw our entrepreneurs and money at biology.

In Australia, we’re uniquely positioned to take on the challenge — we’ve got the labs and the scientific talent. According to the CSIRO’s National Synthetic Biology Roadmap, Australia could develop an industry worth up to $27 billion a year and create 44,000 jobs by 2040 by building its synthetic biology ecosystem.

Like the internet revolution, companies that enable or effectively harness synthetic biology will thrive, challenging existing profit pools for incumbents. With synthetic biology, you really can have your cake and eat it too.


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Jim Wilson
Jim Wilson
4 months ago

Interesting take “synthetic biology”. While the world continues to focus on the synthetic $1.7T opportunity over 10 years, in 10 years time, they are oblivious to the natural biology influences and opportunity of $100T each and every year. Why is everyone focusing on the synthetic while they watch the natural biology world crash around them. Natures solutions already exist.

Gary Murdoch-Brown
Gary Murdoch-Brown
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim Wilson

My thoughts exactly.

3 months ago
Reply to  Jim Wilson

Ethical, local, food security, land use, population density

David McKenna
David McKenna
4 months ago

Absolutely mind blowing technology with enormous potential to revolutionise food production … for the better.

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