In this episode of Talk is Biotech! Guru Singh, our CEO, talks to Samir Hamadache, CEO at Forest City SynBio about how they are on a mission to support Canadian bioentrepreneurs, drivers for the bioeconomy, hottest trends in synthetic biology and much more.
Looking out for Canadian entrepreneurs
Samir has always been inspired by entrepreneurs and their inclination to think differently, create value from scratch, and step out of their comfort zones. That’s why he decided to get involved with SynBio Canada – an organization that helps scientists and students stay connected and raises public awareness of synthetic biology He met many aspiring and inspiring entrepreneurs and active founders of synthetic biology or life sciences companies, but it became evident to him that there was a lack of support for them, especially here in Canada.
"When these entrepreneurs are just starting out, it's really hard for them to get funding and find lab space to develop their proof of concept. It takes a special type of mentorship and support network to get these companies off the ground."
Forest City SynBio was born out of seeing this gap and wanting to bridge it with Samir’s vision of creating a hub where early-stage companies could find lab space, a network, and a community that can provide them with the funding and support they need to succeed.
A closer look into how Forest City Synbio operates
Forest City Synbio currently has three offerings. The first is Labspace. They will be opening doors to their first pilot facility in April that's going to be a coworking lab where early-stage founders can work on their proof of concept. It'll be a rent-based model with flexible rental fees, exchange for equity opportunities, and other such perks.
The second offering is the community. They have a founder network, a virtual space where founders can find peer mentorship and participate in meetings like asking me things with experienced entrepreneurs and investors, lawyers, etc. Over the next year, Forest City SynBio will expand and become a more comprehensive program that will provide early-stage life science entrepreneurs with the tools, knowledge, and connections they need to start their businesses.
The third offering is investment. Right now, SynBio offers a small pre-seed investment to proof of concept founders. It's not that substantial, but it can help a founder who wants to be able to work full time on their initiative. The long-term plan is to eventually become an investment fund. As startups grow, Forest City Synbio wants to grow with its customers and make returns off of their exits and dividends as they grow.
Drivers for the bioeconomy
When it comes to taking the bio industry to the next level, we should be focusing on a few drivers –namely scientific and technological drivers, infrastructure drivers, social drivers, financial drivers, regulatory drivers, and virtualization of the industry.
- Scientific and technological drivers - As we continue to innovate, costs of previously expensive processes will go down. For example - DNA Synthesis has become cheap and more accessible.
- Infrastructure drivers - Entrepreneurs need lab space, with equipment to work on their idea and make them a reality. They need organizations and research programs that can help them network and solve problems in the field.
- Financial drivers - There has to be good public and private investment to support entrepreneurs and other companies.
- Regulatory drivers - We need to promote innovation while at the same time protecting public interests, environmental health, and preventing misuse of the technology.
- Social drivers - Although the public perception is changing for the better, it still has a bit of a stigma from the GMO era that continues to plague this technology’s reputation among the general public. We need to work on helping people see the value of using this technology.
- Virtualization of the industry - Digitalization and automation will make biology more connected and scalable.
Today’s hottest trends in synthetic biology
According to Samir, the hottest trend in synthetic biology is cellular agriculture. Companies are taking a single protein or a small number of proteins normally produced by animals or plants and manufacturing them using microbes.
At the other end of that spectrum is lab-grown meat or cultivated meat. It essentially involves taking stem cells from the muscle cells of animals and cultivating them in bioreactors to produce meat. The other hot ticket in synthetic biology is in the field of agriculture and plant biotech.
Samir’s vision to support local entrepreneurs and the Canadian biotech environment
Samir’s vision grew from his fascination with the science itself, and its potential to create solutions for problems that we all want to be addressed such as environmental health and food insecurity. There is always research going on in universities and academic labs that can do a lot of good for people and the planet, but we still aren’t seeing the fruits of this labor take shape in the real world as often as it should. That’s why Samir wants to do his part to accelerate scientific innovation in all its forms and see it come to fruition. Growing up in Canada, he also wants to support the growing scientific community in the country he calls home.
"We have incredible research going on in our schools and the opportunity is there. That’s why it’s disheartening to see it materializing so slowly”.My vision is to see Canada among the leaders in the world, in this area, but potentially also become the world leader in synthetic biology commercialization."
Guidelines to start your own 'garage biotech' in Canada
Garage biotechs are generally Level-1 containment labs, so there is a low barrier of entry when starting one. The general guidelines are to have a space with good plumbing and air circulation, ensuring the lab is up to code and meets the compliance requirements if it gets audited.
Regulatory concerns when running a 'garage biotech'
The concept of 'garage biotech' is quite literally entrepreneurs innovating from inside of their garage or basement. Academic research is great and scientists doing this work is super important. It's really a very different mindset when you're doing research for a scientific purpose, versus when you go into it with a problem that you recognize and perhaps experience. That's what's gonna drive the exciting applications. However, this kind of research raises some regulatory concerns. We need systems that can prevent misuse and unforeseen negative consequences of these new innovations.
Some of these systems include manipulating the genetic codes to prevent genetically-engineered organisms from spreading their genetic information into the wider ecosystem. There exist precautions such as kill switches to prevent organisms from surviving outside of their intended environment. There are security measures in place at companies that produce DNA synthesis such as screening orders to make sure that sequences being ordered aren't potentially dangerous.
At the same time, recognizing that it's going to be nearly impossible to monitor everything that's being done. As long as you have the raw materials and knowledge, virtually anyone could be doing synthetic biology anywhere at any time.
"That said, I think the beneficial applications far outstrip the potential negative outcomes. We need new solutions for battling diseases. We need new ways to produce food sustainably. We need solutions for sequestering carbon dioxide and turning it into more valuable things rather than just bearing it in the ground and hoping it turns to rock. So slowing down innovation is not the way to move forward. We need awareness, understanding, and constant innovation to stay ahead of the risks."
Advice for aspiring bioentrepreneurs
Samir’s advice to aspiring bioentrepreneurs is to discuss their ideas with other people. Although there are always concerns about sharing too much intellectual property, working in a bubble can limit your idea’s potential. Talking to, learning from, and cooperating with people is one way to gain support and funding for your vision. The other piece of advice would be to stay curious.. This could be reading books or listening to podcasts, and engaging with topics of interest that are perhaps outside of your field or previous experiences. You never know where that next big jolt of inspiration is going to come from.
How can bioentrepreneurs be a part of Forest City SynBio?
If bio entrepreneurs are looking for a space and are interested in learning more about Forest City SynBio. They can reach out directly on LinkedIn or email Samir at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Forest City SynBio is well-suited for very early-stage founders who want to build out their proof of concept, validate their idea, and test it out.
It is a rent-based model, so one would need to have some funding to be able to get started. It is a biosafety level space suited for molecular biology, cloning, microbial, yeast culture, and bacterial and yeast culture, but SynBio likes to work with all types of life-science companies that are going to advance that entire industry.
Scispot is on a mission to empower bioentrepreneurs and make workflow automation possible for every life science lab on this planet. To learn more about Scispot and its no-code digital toolkit for lab digitalization and automation, book a demo here.
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