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Synthetic Biology Technology

Expert View: Challenges in communicating synthetic biology

By David Kirk (@SciCommKirk), science communications consultant at D Kirk Communications.

Synthetic biology is more than a field of research or an application of new tools. It is a nexus where other fields intersect with biotechnology and engineering. Companies are facing major hurdles when it comes to scale up, standardisation, partnering and regulation of their new technologies. As a field, we are known for our collaborative and communicative nature. It is time to take that spirit to policymakers, investors, partners in the value and supply chains and, perhaps most importantly, the public.

Value and Supply Chains

Last year, Cambridge Consultants released a white paper collating the views of synthetic biology leaders across Europe and the USA. The participants agreed that standardisation, scale-up and distribution of products represent major barriers to getting synthetic biology products to market. A silver lining to this was synthetic biology companies are willing to collaborate. Partnerships between Synthace and LabGenius or Ginkgo Bioworks and Synlogic Therapeutics exemplify the breadth of these collaborations. Until synthetic biology graduates with interdisciplinary skillsets flood the job market, biologists, chemists and software engineers must work together to develop successful, standardised approaches at lab scale.

Companies face different challenges for scale-up. CMOs are unable or unwilling to facilitate the new technologies developed by start-ups at lab-scale. This forces synthetic biology companies to either vertically integrate (at great cost) or work with willing CMOs who may be able to cater to their needs. CHAIN Biotechnology and Porton Biopharma recently partnered to scale up production of bacterial spores, traditionally unwanted by-products in bacterial fermentations. Synthetic biology processes may seem at odds with traditional methods. Where existing CMOs can be used, concise communication for transferring methodology is crucial to making scale-up work. 

While it may seem like putting the cart before the horse, supply chains and distribution should be investigated as early as possible. Synthetic biology offers so much in tailoring a product for the end-user, it is easy to forget that this includes how well a product can be stored and transported. This is particularly true of therapeutics. Discussing your needs with packaging and distribution partners early on can help shape your product before costly scale-up methodologies are implemented. 


At the Kind Earth Tech conference earlier this year, I met Claire Smith, the creator of an impact investment platform called Beyond Investing which focuses on climate-friendly companies. She told me that she and other VCs wanted to make a positive impact on the world by investing only in technologies that are good for the planet. Every investor, be it an individual or an organisation, wants to know how their investment will make the world a better place. Alongside robust data and a business plan, your company’s story needs to resonate with your investor’s goals and values. Selling synthetic biology in a broad context is more accessible than trying to simply dictionary-define the field during your pitch. When you share your story, try to get an investor to see themselves in it too. If they do, then you have the right investor on board to help your company grow.

Policymakers and The Public

Since 2012, the UK government has pumped over £300 million into funding synthetic biology and it is presented as one of “Eight Great Technologies” for its potential to develop the bioeconomy. The field has grown rapidly, outpacing the rest of Europe in start-ups, but clouds remains over many synthetic biology applications: regulation and public acceptance. Synthetic biology may find itself in a ‘quick to fund, slow to implement’ situation unless more is done to lobby for change and demonstrate its safety to the public. 

Yasmin Hamed, a member of cabinet for outgoing Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Carlos Moedas, related to me the challenges in communicating science among politicians, citing the bioeconomy as particularly difficult to explain. She highlighted technical language as a hindrance and suggested the use of metaphors and everyday examples to make advanced technology more accessible. One of synthetic biology’s greatest applications is in helping to circularise the bioeconomy, tackle issues around climate change and provide more precision and safety in genetic modification than ever before. Tangible examples of this – something people can see, feel and trust – may go a long way in reversing ill-advised regulations and bring synthetic biology products to market.

Just this year a ‘Green Wave’ swept the European elections, talk of a Green New Deal in the USA, and major climate change protests and rallies were held worldwide. Climate change and the ageing population will likely define the 21st Century. Generation Z, faced with the problems left by their forebears, are demanding change and transparency as a matter of course. The best time for positioning synthetic biology is now, and to meet all communications challenges with openness, honesty and a message of hope rather than hype.

This ‘Expert View’ was first published in issue #16 of the Bio Market Insights’Quarterly. The author, Dr David Kirk, is a molecular biologist turned science communications consultant specialising in synthetic biology.

Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Bio Market Insights editorial team and management.

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