What kind of Startups were born at the UK’s First Biohackathon?

uk biohackathon cambridge cutec 2016 biohacking alpha brick

Organised by the University of Cambridge Technology and Enterprise Club (a catchy ‘CUTEC’ for short), the Biohackathon was the first of its kind organised in the UK…

Biohacking CUTEC biohackathonWith SynBio veterans such as Bento Bio (inventors of the ‘Lunch box sized Laboratory’ for hackers, schools and DIY enthusiasts), Synthace (which invented Antha – ‘the programming language of biology) and their founder Chris Grant, the conference also had some prominent sponsors, from SynBioBeta to MedImmune.

As Thomas Ladrain, the President of Parisian Biohacking institution, La Paillasse, put it at Labiotech Refresh, “A new generation of Bio-entrepreneurs is rising right now”. And he couldn’t be more right.

biohacking microfluidics biohackathon cutec
An agar 3D-printed microfluidic chip developed by Team Liquid during the Biohackathon (Credit: CUTEC)

Synthetic Biology (‘SynBio‘) is a favourite topic of ours at Labiotech, and it’s application in more unconventional communities (from artists to schools – just look at iGEM) is becoming more prevalent with the rise of Open source materials and gadgetry.

And business is booming in the field, with more investors realising that in such communities, truly innovative business ideas are being born below the Big Pharma radar. The accelerator IndieBio is one such example (in fact the first in Europe) to develop a program for this generation of ‘biohackers’.

Biohacking cutec cambridge biohackathon DIY startup
OpenPCR and 3D printers like the ‘Ultimaker’ are enabling a generation of entrepreneurs to develop prototypes and come up with truly innovative ideas from outside the close-knit Biotech community (Credit: CUTEC)

So the ‘UK’s first Biohackathon’ gave such students (and even non-biologists) the opportunity to step-up in front of investors and do the same. As the CUTEC team put it…

During 72 sleepless, caffeinated hours of biology prototyping, they devised an idea, built a prototype and then pitched their idea, in front of a crowd of 300 people…”

Judges included industry leaders from Cambridge Consultants, Imperial Innovations, Steven O’Connell (from the ‘startup factory’ – IndieBio EU) and Paul Hughes (Head of Future Business Centre – another Startup company factory).

biohacking cambridge cutec indiebio bento lab synbio
Left: Bethan Wolfenden, co-founder of the Bento Bio, showing off the Bento Lab. Right: Stephen O’Connell, Assistant Director of IndieBio EU, with Trevor Nicks, the CSO of algae drink startup Spira. P.S. Nice tee, Stephen… (Credit: CUTEC)

So what were some of the ideas?

  • SenseBrush – Looking to reduce plaque formation and improve dental hygiene through ‘hacking’ of electric toothbrushes to optimise brushing time.
  • Heilsa – Enhanced house plants embedded with Genetically engineered bacteria to absorb household pollutants (e.g. formaldehyde).
  • SynGene Finder – a comparison website for Synthetic biology services to include time, price and user feedback.
  • Petri – A design for a commercial ‘grow your own Petri dish culture kit’, to shoehorn the Urban-Outfitters layperson into SynBio (you’ve seen the Dino Pet and you have Grow-your-own Shrooms…why not bacteria?).
  • Charrcoal – a digital search engine for Drug-Drug Interactions (outpacing the old medical DDI manual) as a digital reference aid for healthcare professionals.
  • Link Lab  – An enhanced and cheaper lab-on-a-chip diagnostic prototype for biotech reagents.
  • GMB (short for Gen Eng Bs…which is shorter for Genetically Engineered Bacteria) looking to develop metal pollution biosensors from…well, GMB.
  • Alpha-Brick (α-βrick) – an ‘all-in-one’ SynBio service, from splicing of plasmids to cloud-lab delivery.

And the Winner was…Alpha Brick!

The Alpha Brick Team from the Left: Kelvin Zhang (Back-end Developer), Claus Weiland (Bioinformatician), Shannon Doyle (Pharmacology), Evgeny Saveliev (Front-end Developer), Pablo Lubroth and Hana Janebdar (both Biochemical engineers working on the Business Development). (Credit: CUTEC)

The team won £1500 and a place on the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Accelerate Cambridge Programme. I spoke to Evgeny (their front-end developer) later that evening.

He explained what he believed made their design work was the fluidity of the service, bringing each component needed in SynBio research and plasmid design under 1 interface – from the gene editing stage to actual delivery from a remote custom lab manufacturing (i.e. a ‘Cloud Lab‘).

And the drag-and-drop design is always a cool feature to integrate into this kind of software…

Tom Meany (the new President of CUTEC) presenting the Circular Economy award for the Biohackathon to the Alpha-Brick team (Credit: Nelly Olova / CUTEC)

Another win came from the Charrcoal team, who’s searchable database for Drug-Drug Interactions (DDI) caught the eye of Imperial Innovations. In a surprise announcement, the academic based investment firm pledged £500 to the trio to help them further develop their prototype.

Biohacking cutec imperial innovations converge cambridge consultants DIY
Left: Mark and Jack from Converge London (a new division of Imperial Innovations) which is launching in October. Right: Some of the Cambridge Consultants team at the Plant Sciences Labs during the biohackathon (Credit: CUTEC).

Was great to hear from those who pitched, and some of the plans were exceptionally advanced given the limited 72 period in which they were developed.

Here’s to many more biohackathons at Cambridge, and other hackspaces (including Hackteria and the London Biohackspace) in the future! Some more photos from the week are below…



Biohacking catharines college cutec cambridge

Biohacking cutec cambridge biohackathon tom meany

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Feature Image Credit: All the participating Biohacking teams up on the stage, along with the The Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club. Cambridge, June 25th (Credit: Nelly Olova / CUTEC)
In article photos of Conference (Credit: Nelly Olova / CUTEC)


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