Synthetic biology research is strong in Europe, but the region has much to learn from the US when it comes to commercial translation, attracting investment and liaising with regulators.
Europe’s synthetic biology scene is on the cusp of maturity. European teams dominated many areas in the overgraduate category at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition in October. The region is punching above its weight in terms of innovation but, when held up to US-based synthetic biology hubs like Boston and the Bay Area, Europe is behind in translating synthetic biology research into investment and commercial ventures.
At the recent Synbio Markets conference in Berlin, attendees and speakers noted the stark differences between the European and US synthetic biology space. For Edward Green, founder of the biotech Biocleave (previously Green Biologics) and microbiome therapeutics company CHAIN Biotechnology, there are two major issues at play.
“One is scale, the amount of investment in the US dwarfs what you see in Europe and that manifests itself in the number of early-stage companies working in this space. The second is around regulation. What you find certainly in Europe is that synthetic biology and engineering biology are much more heavily regulated,” he explained.
How we fund, regulate and discuss synthetic biology in Europe is worlds apart from our counterparts in the US. How is the synthetic biology space shaping up in Europe under these different constraints? And what can emergent synthetic biology markets learn from the two very different stories playing out on each side of the Atlantic?
Money, money, money
“Obviously the US is ahead in terms of the fact that there is a lot of money there and venture capital going into synbio. The sort of money they’re raising is on a whole other level to the rest of the world,” said Alex Williamson, CEO of Bio Market Insights, who hosted Synbio Markets.
To put the scale of investment into perspective, in the second quarter of 2019, synthetic biology investment in the US was a staggering €1B ($1.1B). For that same period, the rest of the world raised €132M ($147M) according to a report by international synthetic biology network SynBioBeta.
“The Americans are going for this really aggressive land grab and Europe is being very traditionally skeptical, and I don’t think we know which is going to work out as the right approach,” said Neil Goldsmith, founder of London-based investment group Double Bioventures. Goldsmith was quick to point out a big oddity of the synthetic biology space, which is that, except for Impossible Foods in the plant-based meat arena, synthetic biology hasn’t returned on investment yet.
Babette Pettersen is now a Director for Business Development at strain engineering giant Ginkgo Bioworks. “One of the differences that I noted is that there are more substantial sources of private funding in the US than in Europe. Europe invests more in research and development than in scale-up and commercialization,” she explained.
She highlighted the Horizon 2020 research budget of €80 billion and public-private partnerships such as the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking, which have funded projects across the continent.
“These projects are generally smaller than average US-funded startups are, but it’s fragmented, obviously across different countries in Europe.”
Is investment concentrated in the US simply because there are more companies, or are US investors simply reluctant to enter Europe?
“Why would you, when you have such great opportunities in America?” said Goldsmith. “You do see in pharma now American funds going into European deals. Fundamentally I read that it is because European deals are cheaper. I don’t think there’s enough critical mass in Europe yet.”
Williamson sees Europe as being just as innovative as the US, but less entrepreneurial. “I think one of the key differences is that Americans are naturally more entrepreneurial in that they will just spin things out of universities and PhD programs and just go for it, whereas in Europe that’s not always the case,” he explained, adding that some universities are better than others in Europe.
Entering the European market
As humans we like to categorize. The European Union has done much to create a single market with public funding for research, but the reality is that the European market is made of many countries and cultures with their own ideas and rules.
For CEO and founder of US-based DNA synthesis company Twist Bioscience, Emily Leproust, the challenge of Europe is expanding their company into the whole European market.
“In the US you create one company and you can have employees anywhere in the US,” Leproust explains. Twist now has people in Germany, the UK, France and Switzerland. “There’s a little bit of complexity of running different operations in different countries. You have languages, you have different laws, it’s just a bit harder. But the market is here, the customers are here, so we just have to do it!”
For Goldsmith, the European market is hampered by regulation. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is slower than the Food and Drug Administration in the US. “Getting something through EFSA is much harder than it is to get something approved in the food space in the US. To get a novel biopesticide approved in the US takes maybe two-to-three years. In Europe it’s over seven years. The US has put in special regulations for low-risk pesticides or biological agents and Europe has not.”
This has an immediate effect for new synthetic biology products for industrial use that are entering the market. The US and Asia are the top two markets for entry, followed by South America. Europe is typically the last market for consideration. The story is different for pharmaceuticals, where Europe is usually the second market entered after the US.
Learning from experience
How we talk about synthetic biology – and new technology in general – is often shaped by our culture. For those trying to bring investors and partners on board in a new venture, there is a danger of overhyping the impact of the technology. Audiences from different cultural backgrounds will also perceive the hype differently. I discussed the topic with Nadine Bongaerts-Duportet of Science Matters and Hello Tomorrow. As science communicators, she sees a clear difference between how synthetic biology is communicated on both sides of the Atlantic.
Communication in the US is imbued with a latent positivity, Bongaerts-Duportet suggests, but in Europe we lean towards a more balanced approach. “We’re not necessarily negative, we can be positive without saying it so explicitly,” she explains.
Can we learn from how US synthetic biology communicates to entice US investors into Europe? Could we create a positive sounding yet balanced approach to hype?
“There is a short-term benefit that makes people excited and that actually helps to get money for many projects… You have to set the right expectations. You have to excite people, because if you’re not passionate and enthusiastic, why would people join you?”
Bongaerts-Duportet cautions that a top down approach doesn’t work in Europe. “‘We’re going to do things like this and we’re going to do it fast, as long as we put enough money in it, it will happen.’ That doesn’t work here,” she says.
One country that can appreciate both the US and European viewpoints is Canada, which is fast developing its own synthetic biology ecosystem. Bettina Hamelin, CEO of Ontario Genomics, has been involved in setting up the nascent synthetic biology community. Canada is drawing inspiration from both approaches to get the most from their funding.
“I’d say that we’re making our own path based on what we can learn from Europe and the US. That’s how we feel often as Canadians, we’re sort of in between, we have a strong European heritage and we have a very close neighbor with whom we collaborate extensively,” she explained.
Hamelin cited issues around lack of funding or fragmented funding, which needs to be brought together. She expressed an interest in Europe’s public-private partnerships which, she thinks, may be better suited to the Canadian culture and financial situation.
“I think we can’t afford to be the US. We’d like to partner. I think in Canada that’s how we want to get ahead, by partnering with the right partner at the right time for the right circumstances to accelerate progress,” she said.
A route forward
Synthetic biology is a major enabling technology for developing a circular bioeconomy – a key feature of the last EU government and, following the ‘green wave’ in the last European elections, a goal of this government as well. Despite an appetite among academics and young entrepreneurs from iGEM and universities across the continent, synthetic biology commercialization is hampered by a repressive regulatory environment and a lackluster investment landscape compared to the US.
Europe’s major challenges in the years ahead, to achieve a sustainable bio-based economy, are around improving the regulatory environment of the single market and, on a national level, attracting investment to translate our R&D into commercial viability and build the necessary infrastructure to scale that technology.
David Kirk is a freelance writer and communications consultant with interests in synthetic biology, biotech and sustainability. He has a PhD in molecular microbiology and has industrial experience developing living medicines.
Images via Shutterstock and E. Resko