Hi ,

What a wonderful opening day at SynBioBeta 2024! Check out the highlights of day 1 of SynBioBeta 2024 by our writers Embriette Hyde, Katia Tarasava, Kostas Vavitsas, and Gabrielle David.

From Konstantinos Vavitsas:

SynBioBeta moved to a new home in 2024 at the hospitable San Jose Convention Centre! John Cumbers, CEO of SynBioBeta, revealed the new value his dynamic team represents: “Fuel the fun!” John set the tone for this year’s conference, which had many new and returning attendees, a lot of AI, and a lot of exciting new bioeconomy initiatives.

Photo Credit: Patrick Powers

Last year was a rough one for entrepreneurs and investors, but the tides seem to be changing. This year, there are more than 100 investors in SynBioBeta, and hopefully, the conference will conclude with several term sheets signed!

The official program started with space exploration and a vivid discussion on how to turn humans into interstellar species. Astronaut Kate Rubins, Chris Mason, and SynBioBeta’s Ivan Jaubert talked about how humans, notable for not being optimized for space travel, need to engineer biology to solve numerous challenges. Rubins recounted that doing experiments in orbit, where equipment and tools need to be taped to the bench, poses a new set of challenges. I also learned that Mason sent yeast to orbit the moon. There were changes in expression in gene expression profiles and a few mutations, but the yeast could still ferment wine after coming back to Earth!

Photo Credit: Patrick Powers

Writing DNA is one of the big enablers of the whole synthetic biology industry, and a panel, moderated by Julianna LeMieux, gathered the CEOs of some of the most influential DNA synthesis companies: Emily Leproust from Twist Bioscience, Larry Stambaugh from Molecular Assemblies, Thomas Ybert from DNA Script, Matthew Hill from Elegen Bio, Jodi Barrientos from Ribbon Biolabs, and Jason Gammack from Ansa Bio. Synbio consumers are demanding, and they have strong product requirements. The synthesis companies are up to the challenge: Your DNA, your way. And we make it,” Leproust said.

The applications enabled by gene synthesis are diverse, but maybe the most anticipated breakthroughs will come from the personalized medicine and gene therapy space, maybe in the next few years. As for labs and companies that are still cloning, the CEOs urged them to stop and focus their energies on solving other problems. According to Leproust, “Cloning is the 21st-century equivalent of coal mining”.

The morning session concluded with Quantum Sky and Shiru, two AI synbio startups. AI can help design new performance materials, applications, and microbes that go beyond current nature’s limitations.

From Katia Tarasava:

The second half of the morning opened with Martine Rothblatt giving a SynBioBeta Lifetime achievement award to Paul Stamets. Afterwhich, Paul gave a visionary talk entitled “Conscious Convergence: Melding Mycology, Biotech, and the Philosophy of Interconnectedness.” The famed mycologist covered the potential of fungi in therapeutic applications, from treating depression to curing viral infections. These and other topics are discussed in the second edition of his book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.

Photo Credit: Patrick Powers

This inspiring presentation was followed by a storm of lightning talks from bitBiome, Phenotypeca, ZBiotics, Black & Veatch, DNA Script, Elo Life Systems, VTT, Synplogen, seqWell, and Asimov. 

As you can imagine, the short talks packed some powerful insights. For example, Kris Chatrathi, who is the Bioprocess Solutions Manager at Black & Veatch, shared his thoughts on successfully reaching technology readiness level milestones to bring Synbio products to market. Kentaro Hayashi, the Head of the DNA Synthesis Business Unit at Synplogen, talked about overcoming challenges in the discovery and production of new antibiotics. Kevin LeShane, the Head of Software Design at Asimov, presented Kernel, a CAD software for engineering biology that is now available to researchers as a beta version.

Next, we heard from Jean-Francois Bobier, Partner & Director at BCG, and Joshua Lachter, Co-Founder & CBO of Synonym, who spoke about the challenges in biomanufacturing scale-up. Bobier believes that to make synbio products at scale, three things are required: demand for the product, capacity to produce it at cost, and industrial strains that work at mega-scale. The convergence of these factors promises to decrease the cost by a factor of ten or more, which is necessary to reach cost parity with incumbent materials like plastics. Synonym is solving the capacity side of this equation by building the physical infrastructure that can support biomanufacturing at scale.

Finally, Jason Gammack, CEO of Ansa Bio, shared the company’s story. Ansa was founded by synbio scientists frustrated by not being able to get essential research reagents when they needed them. The startup focused on improving access to perhaps the most crucial piece of synbio technology: DNA. Using enzymatic DNA synthesis, Ansa ensures that even the most challenging DNA sequences are delivered in time.

Photo Credit: Patrick Powers

From Embriette Hyde:

After a delicious lunch networking with old and new friends, the afternoon kicked off with a series of exciting breakout sessions. 

The Food and Ag track picked up momentum with an engaging session featuring entrepreneurs whose companies leverage precision fermentation to make foods, flavors, and ingredients. Zijay Tang, co-founder of Anthology, Joni Symon, co-founder of De Novo Foodlabs; Casey Lippmeier, Senior VP of Innovation at Conagen, Isabella Iglesias-Musachio from Bosque Foods, and James Petrie, CEO of Nourish Ingredients discussed a range of topics, including the difference between conventional and precision fermentation (hint: precision fermentation isn’t just GMOs), the different organisms that can be used and the molecules they can make, how synbio is driving the industry forward, and challenges around scaling and regulatory frameworks. 

Each of the panelists brought their own unique insights and experiences; however, they all agreed on one thing: the genetic diversity at our fingertips and the synthetic biology tools we can use to tap into it mean we have an exciting future ahead, one that will make all the technical, regulatory, and societal challenges worth it.

“We’re at a pivotal point in global food agriculture where we are starting to see climate impact on production. There will be changes to the way we eat food. We can contribute by identifying the molecules that make a difference in how food tastes, performs and has nutritional qualities—these are things we should all be thinking about,” said Petrie, closing out the session.

Microbes don’t just produce high-value ingredients in industrial bioreactors, however. Like it or not, the microbes that call our bodies home have the potential to impact our brains through the gut-brain axis—the bidirectional communication highway between our brains and gut microbes. Nichol Bradford, co-founder of NIREMIA Collective, Jessica Green, Program Manager with ARPA-H, and Phil Strandwitz, CEO of Holobiome and an old collaborator of mine from my post-doc days at UCSD, discussed all the nuances of the gut-brain axis in the first Neurotech Track session of the conference.

When it comes to the microbiome, misconceptions abound, one of the biggest of which is whether we can buy the microbiome off the shelf today (we can’t), a point that Strandwitz shared elegantly. Green agreed, emphasizing even further how much we still don’t know about the microbiome. Nevertheless, there are a lot of observations that suggest the microbiome can affect the brain. The key to understanding if, how, and why they do is in their function, which is exactly what Strandwitz and Green have dedicated their careers to studying. And there are plenty of opportunities that keep Green, Strandwitz, and others in the space going.

“We have the ability in the next five years to disentangle the links between the microbiome and any aspect of human health,” said Green. Being open-minded as we go will ensure we really do change things through what we learn about microbes, added Strandwitz.

After the coffee break, things picked up again on the main stage with the much anticipated Wolfram & Quake Live in San Jose: The AI + Bio Tour! Stephen Wolfram of Wolfram Research joined the stage with Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Network’s Stephen Quake for an incredibly fun fireside chat led by NPR’s Moira Gunn. 

Photo Credit: Patrick Powers

Physics made a surprising and compelling appearance, as Wolfram opened the discussion with his interest in the natural history of simple rules (like what we see in physics) and what they do and their relationship to the kinds of things we see in biology. The discussion quickly turned to the AI “moment” we’re experiencing right now, which Quake reminded the audience is built on the foundation laid by brilliant physicists and can help us solve the mysteries of the cell.

The big question, of course, is how much can we jump forward to make predictions, something that Wolfram says may be far easier in physics than in biology. Quake provided an example: we can’t predict cell types from genomes yet, for example—that needs experimentation.  LLMs, however, can recognize patterns that humans can’t, so eventually, we may be able to make predictions we can’t today. 

To close out the session, Moira turned the discussion toward “the future of the future,” asking Quake and Wolfram what happens if and when we do figure out how to jump ahead. “Biology today is 90% experiment, 10% computation—I think that’s going to be inverted,” said Quake. “We’ll be able to ask and answer really deep questions, like how did multicellularity develop and evolve?”

Larry Stambaugh of Molecular Assemblies and Maria Soloveychik of SyntheX joined the stage next, exploring the powerful intersection between synthetic biology and precision medicine. One of the big takeaways, which was elegantly put forth by Soloveychik, was that synthetic biology is enabling a world where there are no limitations, technologically speaking, to what we can do to and with drug targets. This will open up a whole new world in terms of bringing novel solutions in human medicine that were previously impossible to the fore. 

Next up, Hoxton Farms co-founder Max Jamilly, Uncommon Bio CEO and co-founder Benjamina Bollag, President and CEO of Blue Nalu Lou Cooperhouse, Aleph Farms CTO and co-founder Neta Lavon, and Meatable CTO Daan Luining explored how we are building the future of food through cellular agriculture. When it comes to bringing cultivated meat to consumers’ plates, the consensus among all the panelists, who use different platforms to produce a range of products from seafood to beef, was that the sensory experience—taste, smell, mouthfeel—is key.

Finally, the evening closed out with a truly remarkable discussion between J. Craig Venter and 23andMe’s cofounder Linda Avey, who kept the audience on the edge of their seats and left us all with several thought-provoking ideas—ideas that are likely to be discussed further during this evening’s Welcome Party and following mixer sponsored by Invert.

Photo Credit: Patrick Powers

Additional On-Site Writer Observations:

From Gabrielle David:

Away from the main stage, the breakout sessions were no less enthralling. In the session titled ‘ Psilocybin: The Science, the Art, and the Medicine,’ Pamela Kryskow (Roots To Thrive; Mycomedica), James Kiem (Both& Discovery), and Paul Stamets (Fungi Perfecti) continued the discussion around the undeniable potential of funghi. The panel agreed upon the role psychedelics may play in the future of medicine, treating both physical and mental ailments and perhaps reaching even further. “That ripple effect in society is phenomenal, and everyone benefits from that,” explained Kryskow, highlighting the importance of healthy and happy individuals to make up an equally healthy and happy society. 

The audience's many interesting questions fueled a vibrant discussion, spanning the gamut from the entourage effects of active substances within whole mushrooms to the benefits of fresh vs dried. Throughout the discussion, there was a strong sense of inevitability – the power of these funghi-derived substances is clear, it is only a matter of embracing them. 

In the session ‘How Biotech Shapes Society - Artists and Designers Show Us,’ Charlotte Mccurdy (Stanford University), Ryan Hoover (Maryland Institute College of Art), Sue Huang (UConn Digital Media and Design), and Elizabeth Henaff (NYU Tandon School of Engineering) explored the poignant results when the worlds of science and art collide. Despite their perceived differences, Hoover observed that – while seemingly worlds apart – the two fields are very close together, inhabiting a domain of questioning that is comfortable not knowing the answers. 

Moving on, the panel agreed that, while powerful, collaborative efforts between artists and scientists show a clear skew. Often, artistic efforts tend to feed from scientific efforts, with Huang noting that, in her own efforts, she continuously made first contact. “My experience has been mostly gathering data, but I haven’t seen much of than on the other side,” she explained. Reversal of this information flow is a difficult endeavor, however, the fresh perspective brought by creatives could lead to more diverse hypotheses, redirecting research from its inception. “There is a much more lively role if you bring artists into the process earlier on bringing a divergent perspective that’s harder to see than when you are ingrained in a discipline,” emphasized Hoover.

Announcements From SynBioBeta 2024:


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