Communication troubles are holding back UK biotech

Article by Adam Duckett

Former President says chemical engineers are pivotal

ENGINEERING biology must learn to communicate better if the breakout discipline is to achieve its potential for “explosive growth”, says the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Its report Engineering Biology: A Priority for Growth reviews the barriers preventing the UK from taking commercial advantage of providing sustainable and resource-efficient solutions to the societal challenges faced in the chemicals, energy, food, water and health sectors. The report gives examples of companies using engineering biology to produce greener products, including UK firm Colorifix which has engineered microorganisms to fix naturally-occurring pigments to fabrics. The process removes the need for petrochemicals, and uses ten times less water.

“As we stand here worrying about global warming, greenhouse gases, animals, animal food, the environment, plastics, there are solutions from engineering biology to all of this,” said Ian Shott, who chaired the report’s steering group, and is a former President of IChemE.

Engineering biology is the application of engineering principles to the design of biological systems and incorporates the developments from industrial biotechnology and synthetic biology. The report states there are more than 1,800 UK businesses undertaking industrial biotechnology-
related activity.

Shott said: “Innovation often happens across subject boundaries and engineering biology is a perfect example of this. It draws on genomics, data science and other disciplines, fuelled by major increases in computing power and growing capabilities of machine learning and AI.”

This convergence of disciplines, with its presently fragmented pockets of expertise is a key stumbling block to engineering biology achieving commercial success. It requires coordination between academia, industry and trade groups, across all stages of the development cycle, and between disciplines with support from government and its funding agencies. RAEng held cross-disciplinary workshops and roundtables to gather evidence for its report. Shott chaired meetings between sector groups where afterwards he was asked to ‘decode’ what the representatives of other disciplines had meant. He said it’s time for sector groups to take the initiative, arrange joint meetings, and work out how they can fix these communication issues. Building better connections and incentivising collaboration will deliver more economic and societal impact, he said.


This article is adapted from an earlier online version.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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