What happens when biology encounters engineering?
"Human beings will invent new control units and implant these modules into existing genomes." The vision of "synthetic biology" put forward by Polish geneticist Wacław Szybalski in 1970s has not only become a reality, but also entered the public.
The core idea of synthetic biology is to transform life (cells, etc.) or build a set of life system from source by engineering methods to help human beings achieve the goals of treating diseases, producing products and managing the environment.
As a frontier interdisciplinary subject, synthetic biology has broad application prospects in medicine, health, manufacturing, agriculture and other fields.
Synthetic biology is the "third biological science revolution" after the discovery of DNA double helix structure and the genome sequencing. It has the distinct characteristics of cutting-edge, subverting the existing industrial production process, having application market and creating new economic growth points. Coupled with the listing of synthetic biology enterprises and capital market performance at home and abroad since 2021, VC institutions have also rapidly launched their layout in this field.
According to the research report of TF Securities, in 2021, the VC investment in synthetic biology increased significantly. The investment in the first quarter and the second quarter increased rapidly; In the third quarter, the financing amount of global synthetic biology-related enterprises reached a record high in a single quarter, with an investment amount of $6.1 billion, an increase of 33% compared with the previous period.
"The large-scale capital shots began in the middle of last year, and most of them were in the warm-up stage of keen attention before that." Zhiqian Zhang , the founder and CEO of Tidetron, told the reporter of the 21st Century Business Herald that the landing of many biosynthetic enterprises in the capital market in 2021 is an important driving factor. At the same time, the technological breakthrough and large-scale production of synthetic biology make investment institutions be optimistic about the acceleration of the pace of industrial commercialization.
Synthetic Biology, from Laboratory to Production Line
The origin of synthetic biology can be traced back to 1960s -1970s.
From the perspective of global cooperative research, as early as June 2010, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering, Royal Society and British Academy of Engineering, American Academy of Sciences and American Academy of Engineering reached a consensus to jointly promote the development of global synthetic biology. The series of seminars initiated by them are named "Three Countries and Six Academies".
The early strategic research of synthetic biology in China can be traced back to the National Program on Key Basic Research Project (973 Program). It continuously supported 10 projects by 2015. Other scientific research projects and support include the special release of the national key research and development plan "Synthetic Biology" in 2018, and the long-term support of the National Natural Science Foundation of China for related projects in the field of synthetic biology.
Starting with scientific research, synthetic biology was applied from universities and research institutes to industries in the past 10 years. Used as an underlying tool, synthetic biology is applied in many fields. It not only provides a new way to choose for human creation, but also is rapidly providing important thoughts of green manufacturing under the background of carbon neutrality.
For entrepreneurs and investors, the synthetic bio-manufacturing process has the advantages of green environmental protection, cost reduction and efficiency improvement. Its technology application is expected to accelerate the achievement of China's dual carbon indicators.
"Everyone has a consensus. First, the production mode of synthetic biology is greener than traditional chemical production; Second, synthetic biological production also involves electricity and energy consumption, but the unit energy consumption of producing the same substance has obvious advantages over chemical production." In Zhiqian Zhang's view, synthetic biology is an epoch-making technology, rather than an improved substitute for existing technology.
So far, Huaan, Tianfeng, China Merchants and Western Securities have all introduced research report covering synthetic biology.
The Tianfeng team says in its research report that the application of biotechnology can reduce energy consumption during the industrial process by 15%-80%, raw material consumption by 35%-75%, air pollution by 50%-90% and water pollution by 33%-80%. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), it is estimated that industrial biotechnology will reduce 1 - 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually by 2030.
It is worth noting that recent years saw continuous breakthroughs in synthetic biology research and the rapid development in advanced industrial biotechnology. Bio-manufacturing is redefining green products and green production.
"Guided by the goal of carbon neutrality, both traditional chemical giants and emerging businesses have laid eyes on this new ocean with great potential." Bo Bai, the chairman and CEO of Asian Green Fund, an impact investment fund, said earlier that bio-manufacturing is an important mean to achieve green development in energy, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
We reported the investment of Asian Green Fund in Suzhou Leadsynbio Technology Co.,Ltd before. In early February this year, Leadsynbio disclosed the completion of Series C and Series C+ financing of over RMB 400 million, of which Series C was jointly led by Hillhouse Investment and Sherpa Healthcare Partners. Series C+ financing was exclusively invested by Lilly Asia Ventures.
New Landscape for Synthetic Biology Innovation
According to the statistics from CB Insights, the scale of global synthetic biology market has reached $5.3 billion in 2019 and is expected to exceed$18.9 billion by 2024, growing at a CAGR of 28.8% from 2019 to 2024.
The performance of listed companies which are leading the sector varies but is generally positive.
In terms of global market, in August 2021, Zymergen, the US synthetic biology company, went public on NASDAQ with a first-day market capitalization of almost $3.6 billion. In September 2021, another synthetic biology firm Ginkgo Bioworks landed on the NYSE. It was one of the largest SPAC M&A deals in history.
In Chinese market, in August 2020, Cathay Biotech landed on the capital market as the first stock of synthetic biology on the STAR market, with a market capitalization of over ￥65 billion on the first day of listing. In April 2021, Huaheng Bio landed on the STAR market, with a market capitalization of over ￥3.8 billion before on the first day of listing, and now its market capitalization is close to ￥12 billion.
In an interview, 21st Century Business Herald reporter learned that domestic entrepreneurial teams in synthetic biology have different working backgrounds. Most of them are scientists and researchers who start businesses. Some are those who are in traditional industries and sensitive to technology and they also start businesses. Of course, there are also entrepreneurial teams composed of people with diversified backgrounds, including the team with people of VC backgrounds.
Looking through the 50 Most Notable Synthetic Biology Enterprises in the World published by EB Insights, a data analysis platform for engineering bio-industry, in December 2020, we can find that, there are nine Chinese enterprises: Hangzhou Bota Biosciences, Beijing EdiGene, Beijing Syngentech, Suzhou Synbio Technologies, Shanghai Cathay Biotech, Beijing Bluepha, Nanjing Legend Biotech, Shenzhen Synceres Biosciences and Shenzhen Xinfei Bio.
Since 2021, new enterprises in synthetic biology are still emerging in China. At the same time, as an interdisciplinary subject of molecular biology, genomics, information technology and engineering, synthetic biology has become a hot investment in the primary market.
In China's primary market, the investment and financing of synthetic biology race has obviously accelerated since the second half of 2021.
"As an interdisciplinary subject of information science, life science and materials science, synthetic biology and bio-based materials is the one that Legend Capital pays close attention to in carbon neutral technology investment." Jiaqing Li, the president and managing director of Legend Capital, told the reporter of the 21st Century Business Herald that the team has been paying attention to invest in interdisciplinary fields with the industrial development and technological evolution for a long time, and has laid out with the mentality of industrial chain layout.
In recent years, Unity Ventures has focused on biotechnology investment, and systematically laid out projects in synthetic biology, new drug R&D, food and other fields. Xiao Wang, the founder of Unity Ventures, revealed that the team is focusing on two cross-cutting fields-biology and computing technology, including "AI + nucleic acid drug design" and "AI + high-throughput metabolic engineering".
Create a Highland of Synthetic Biology
In recent years, many departments from the central government to the local government have issued documents encouraging the development of synthetic biotechnology. From the perspective of regional industrial development, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Tianjin have developed rapidly in the field of synthetic biology.
Take a look at Shanghai first. In 2008, the Key Laboratory of Synthetic Biology of Chinese Academy of Sciences was established in Shanghai, which is the first key laboratory of synthetic biology in China. In 2015, universities, research institutions and enterprises in Shanghai formed a strategic alliance for synthetic biology innovation to develop a strategic network for collaborative research.
In September, 2021, "Nanda Synthetic Biology Industrial Park", the first characteristic park of synthetic biology industry in Shanghai, officially opened. It will realize the functional layout of innovative enterprises from "nursery-incubator-pilot acceleration-industrial production".
Then take a look at Shenzhen. In December 2017, the Institute of Synthetic Biology of Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences was officially established, and in January 2019, the Shenzhen Institute of Synthetic Biology, which was initiated by it in the form of "co-construction of institutes", was officially established.
In October 2021, Guangming District of Shenzhen launched the first special support policy for synthetic biology in China, and provided relevant support to synthetic biology enterprises and scientific research institutions settled in Guangming District.
And take a look at Tianjin. The Frontier Science Center of Synthetic Biology initiated by Tianjin University and the National Center of Technology Innovation for Synthetic Biology led by Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, are two important biological bases in Tianjin.
In November 2019, the Ministry of Science and Technology issued an official letter on supporting the construction of National Center of Technology Innovation for Synthetic Biology, proposing to "focus on the key core technologies and major application directions of synthetic biology, focus on breaking the technical bottlenecks and constraints of independent construction and engineering application of industrial enzymes and core strains, thus lead the construction of a new technical path for future bio-manufacturing".
"The driving force of Tianjin, Shenzhen and Shanghai is very strong, especially Tianjin, where more than 30 academicians are working on this." Zhiqian Zhang told reporters that some cities in Shandong, Henan and Guizhou have all issued policies related to synthetic biology, and more cities are building synthetic bio-industry chains.
“Policy support is one that we pay attention to. In addition to this, we also pay attention to the local industrial infrastructure. For example, there is a development chance for synthetic biology and medical treatment combination in areas where medical resources are concentrated. Zhiqian Zhang further analyzed that Tidetron plans to build a new production base in Guangzhou exactly because of the development of biomedical industry. Considering the problem of raw materials, many synthetic biology enterprises have located their production bases in Shandong Province and Guangdong Province.
Besides, 21st Century Business Herald reporter learned that Cathay Biotech’s headquarter and R&D center are located in Zhangjiang High-tech Park, Pudong, Shanghai. Its three production bases are located in Jinxiang, Shandong Province, Wusu, Xinjiang Province and Taiyuan, Shanxi Province (under construction). Leadsynbio has a R&D headquarter in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, a R&D sales center in the United States and a production base in Changde, Hunan Province.
During an academic exchange forum in January this year, Academician Deng Zixin, the director of the State Key Laboratory of Microbial Metabolism of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said that synthetic biology has shown great potential and driving force in many fields. He believes that synthetic biology is about to enter an explosive period.
With the rapid development of synthetic biology, VC investors see great business prospects. Investors with medical, technological and consumption backgrounds are constantly investing in this field.
"In recent years, with the help of the breakthrough of underlying biotechnology and the accumulation of biological data, 'Computing + Biology' has ushered in a new wave. In the next decade, the intersection of computing and new drug research and development, synthetic biology and other fields will become one of the biggest opportunities." Xiao Wang said on many occasions that the combination of synthetic biology with machine learning and automation may completely change bioengineering.
(Writer: Zhao Na Editor: Lin Kun)