Communication troubles are holding back UK biotech

Article by Adam Duckett

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, employing some 14,000 people and contributing £1.2bn (US$1.57bn) in gross value added to the economy.

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.

The concern about poor communication also extends to how entrepreneurs pitch engineering biology to investors and industry.

“There’s far too much narrative about systems and platforms,” Shott said, noting that entrepreneurs first push the biological, mathematical or theoretical systems on which their work relies, rather than the problems their products can solve. He says US entrepreneurs are better at communicating the benefits of their work and securing investment because “they’ll start with the answer and not do an intellectual striptease to get there.”

Other barriers to success discussed in the report include funding uncertainties and getting access to scaleup facilities. Shott said he is worried that while the UK has invested strongly in the last five years, including in six synthetic biology research centres and the translation centre SynbiCITE based at Imperial College London, there are no plans to extend support. Without further government investment he is concerned that the UK will fall behind some of the leading players, including the US and China.

“I would say £50m to £100m per year [investment] into this area would be sensible.”

While the report recognises the significant investment that has been provided for scaleup facilities like the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) it warns that accessing them can be challenging for small companies that are time- and money-poor. It recommends developing an incentive scheme such as innovation vouchers to help encourage the use of these facilities. It goes on to note that navigating the existing innovation support system is overly complex, with a raft of separate funding agencies; and calls for government to draw this all together beneath a single user-interface.  

Asked about how this community can contribute to engineering biology, Shott said chemical engineers are pivotal: “We’re the most science-based engineering discipline. For example, the process language of biology is chemistry… So, I think chemical engineers should be at the heart of this transformation, and a lot of the synthetic biologists would benefit from the chemical engineers helping them”.

In 2017, IChemE established its ‘BioFutures Programme’ to better prepare chemical engineers for careers in the bioeconomy. For more information, including the activities of its working groups, visit:  

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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