Chapter 10. Synbio Axlr8r Teams

Connor Dickie

This summer, five startup companies have gathered in Cork, Ireland, to participate in SynBio Axlr8r, a venture fund that focuses on entrepreneurs building technologies in or around the field of synthetic biology. Each team has received $30k in funding, access to wetlab space at the Univeristy of Cork, and a global network of mentors.

As an Axlr8r mentor (as well as a recipient of funding from Axlr8r’s parent, SOSventures, for Synbiota Inc.), I’ve had the pleasure to visit with many of the teams in person. I thought the BioCoder community would be interested to learn a bit more about each team and their projects.

With this in mind, I’ve asked each team representative the same three questions:

  1. Who is on your team? What are your backgrounds? How did you meet?
  2. What is your Axlr8r project, why are you doing it, and what’s the potential impact?
  3. Wildcard—tell BioCoder something interesting and relevant that does not fit within the preceding questions.

Sarah Choukah of Hyasynth Bio

We’re Hyasynth, a team of six young researchers, entrepreneurs, and scientists. Our profiles include experience working on award-winning iGEM teams, with companies including Synbiota, Novozymes, and Genomikon. In addition, we have academic backgrounds in synthetic biology, biochemistry, and communications. We met in August 2013 as cofounders of Montreal’s DIYBiology and biotech community group, BricoBio. We were brought together by common goals we all share. The first is enabling innovation in science and biotech outside of its institutional or conventional confines. Second, we want to develop more affordable and open means of doing research to improve people’s well being. Third, we all have an infallible passion for biology and technology. We want to build and act on our global, collective need to better understand biotechnology in the best way possible.

We are currently working on the biosynthesis of cannabinoid compounds that can be used in therapeutic and medicinal applications. Many improvements and shifts in the legal status of medical marijuana in several US states and countries have either been made recently or will happen in the next few years. The situation is ripe for a change in cultural attitudes toward the use of cannabis for the treatment of several conditions—muscular dystrophy, epilepsy or chronic pain and inflammation, and potentially many more to be discovered. And, this is only our first target. Using simple microorganisms, we can replace acres of land used to produce compounds and transform light and waste into life-saving pharmaceuticals, to name only a couple possibilities.

We work 21-hour days, starting in the early morning in Cork and ending in the late evening in Montréal, Canada. Coordinating through challenges posed by physical distance, regulatory differences, and organizational cultures is crucial for the team. At the same time, we are also still enrolled in master’s or PhD programs. This is a challenging balance, but it is far from impossible, and we are making the most of it. The mix of entrepreneurship and academic mentorship brings the best out of both worlds by pushing our research techniques to their limit while gaining the essential skills to build our company. The shared knowledge and the time that we put in brings us together more tightly as a team.

Twitter: @HyasynthBio

Website: http://hyasynthbio.com/

Nikolai Braun of Revolution Bioengineering

Revolution Bioengineering is a collaboration between Keira Havens and myself, who are lucky to call Fort Collins, Colorado home. Although we grew up on opposite corners of the United States—me in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and Keira in Kailua, Hawaii—we were both fascinated by the natural world around us and pursued degrees in biological sciences. After earning a PhD in biophysics at UC Davis, I worked in Manchester, England, studying yeast physiology while Keira was commissioned into the United States Air Force. She later separated to pursue a master’s degree in a plant synthetic biology lab. I had joined the lab the week before, and we spent four years working at the cutting edge of academic plant science research. During this time we discovered a shared professional ambition and entrepreneurial spirit, so we took a chance and founded Revolution Bioengineering to make the world a more beautiful place.

Revolution Bioengineering is our company, and making beautiful flowers is our business. Linking naturally occurring genetic elements in new ways, we are developing a petunia that changes color throughout the day—from red to blue and back again. The potential impact of this product goes far beyond offering a strikingly beautiful flower for consumers. Revolution Bio wants to communicate the process and the obstacles of plant biotechnology in a completely transparent way to educate and inform consumers what it takes to create a flower as beautiful and unique as this one.

Revolution Bio almost failed before it started. After Keira and I founded the company, we limped along working both our day jobs as well as nights and weekends at Revolution Bio for nearly a year. With no external funding, we didn’t see how we could carry on championing this idea and had serious discussions about completely folding the company and moving on with our lives. But then the Synbio Axlr8r program funded us with 30k in cash and a similar investment value in mentoring and breathed new life into Revolution. So the summer of 2014 finds us living on Blarney Street in the heart of Cork, getting the boost we need to turn our dream into reality.

Twitter: @RevolutionBio

Website: http://revolutionbio.co

Alexander Murer of Briefcase Biotech

It all started about three years ago when I was sick of the lack of freedom at our university (I was studying molecular biology) and in the education system in general. I’d rather work on real projects than learn massive amounts of theory, so I decided to develop my own bioreactor. Two friends joined to complete our skillset: Bernhard Tittelbach, who is our hardware programmer and electronics engineer, and Martin Jost, a software programmer and a classmate of mine in molecular biology. We were working at the local hardware hackerspace realraum in Graz, Austria. There we came up with the idea to create a hackerspace, but for us biologists! So Martin and I founded Olga (Open Biolab Graz Austria). Well we didn’t know at the time that other biohackerspaces even existed. Our recent project at Synbio Axlr8r evolved out of our work at Olga on the bioreactor and an enlightening meeting in Berlin with biohacker Rüdiger Trojok.

We’re making a rapid DNA prototyper. Everyone who works in a lab probably knows what it means to have delays of days, weeks, or even months waiting for your outsourced DNA service to synthesize the DNA you urgently need. We want to bring DNA synthesis back to the lab bench with our desktop synthesizer called Kilobaser, which will be easy, affordable, and open source. It is based on microfluidic and magnetic technology. It’s also important for us to provide the DIYbio community with an independent way to produce their DNA, instead of relying on the good will of big companies.

Even though it’s a lot of work, we are having a great time here at Synbio Axlr8r in Ireland! It’s amazing to meet all the teams from around the world, biohackers and entrepreneurs, who get things going in their very own way.

Twitter: @BriefcaseBiotech

Website: http://briefcasebiotec.net

Ryan Pandya of Muufri

Our team is myself, a bioprocess engineer and private pilot; Perumal Gandhi, biomedical engineer and founder of two other small companies; and Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest—a nonprofit dedicated to ending factory farming through technology. We actually all met through New Harvest. Isha had met both Perumal and me at different times, but we had both independently talked about producing milk without cows. When Isha came across the opportunity with SynBio Axlr8r, she thought, "I know two guys who want to use synthetic biology to help animals!"

We’re making sustainable, animal-free milk from the bottom up. We’re going to express the main components of milk in yeast—a few proteins and some fats—and then combine them in different ratios to achieve something that tastes like real milk, can be used to make cheeses or whatever else, yet is totally divorced from animal husbandry. There are a bunch of advantages—our product will be lactose free and cholesterol free, for one thing. Because it comes from tightly controlled engineering processes, it won’t need pasteurization yet will never go bad. But those advantages just come from the bottom-up nature; the real impact, for us, is the elimination of animals. That means no more deforestation for grazing land, no more wastewater contamination or flatulent greenhouse gas emissions, no more pesticides or pathogens in the milk, and most of all—no abuse of cows! Pick a cause—health, environmentalism, ethics—Muufri will be a game changer in all of these realms.

May 20 was a crazy day—it was the first day the three of us all met in person! I think this is the new normal, meeting and developing relationships with people online such that when you meet them in person it’s like you’re old friends. It really did feel that way: the other people working around us commented that we all seemed like old friends, not that we had met in person just a few days prior.

Twitter: @Muufri

Website: http://muufri.com

Russel Banta of Benthic Labs

We are Benthic Labs, a group of undergraduate students who are making a strong biomaterial by expressing proteins from hagfish slime in bacteria.

I’m Russel Banta, a third-year chemistry student and CEO of Benthic Labs. I also enjoy free running when I’m not at the bench. My team consists of eight other students, with backgrounds in biology and genetics, and we do have an astrophysics student on the team as well.

The team came together when the group responded to forming University College Cork’s first iGEM team. Our project is to express the two proteins from hagfish slime in bacteria. We plan to do this because the filament made of these proteins has incredible characteristics: 10 times stronger than nylon, stronger than steel and even kevlar! Hagfish have never been bred in captivity and are hard to access. With this in mind, a synthetic-biology approach has provided a perfect solution to being able to produce the filament in usable quantities. We see this product as an improved and eco-friendly material that will hopefully have uses where nylons and plastics have been used to date. Because of its antimicrobial properties and it being 100 times thinner than a human hair, one of the first potential applications of this product could be as stitches in eye surgery.

Many materials are derived from harmful chemicals and finite oil supplies, and we hope our natural product will be a positive step away from these methods.

Twitter: @BenthicLabs

Website: http://benthiclabs.com

Conclusion

So there you have it—a quick peek at the inaugural teams and projects of the first SynBio Axlr8r. A lot is riding on the ability of these teams to deliver a working prototype at the end of the summer. Like many venture capital firms, SOSventures is evaluating not only the market for consumer-focused SynBio products, but also, and perhaps more importantly to the BioCoder community, the ability of small groups to rapidly create real SynBio products in just a few months for a fraction of typical biotech R&D budgets.

If successful, the 2014 cohort will not only secure the future of the SynBio Axlr8r for many more SynBio entrepreneurs, but also, and perhaps more importantly, demonstrate to the world what many of us in the BioCoder community have been saying for years: we’re living in a new era of biotech, one where access to tools, knowledge, and one another allows any enthusiast to have a positive impact on the world.