A Proposal for a Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute

Benjamin Scott, PhD Candidate, University of Toronto

This eParliament Ideas article is the beginning of a concerted effort to foster Canadian synthetic biology through SynBio Canada, and advance biotechnology within the Canadian economy. Accompanying this article is a public petition advocating the foundation of a Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute


Why Synthetic Biology Matters

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Synthetic biology seeks to engineer organisms to solve problems in medicine, agriculture, and industry. Similar to using the same plastic Lego blocks to construct different things, synthetic biologists can use genes from different organisms to piece together new biological pathways. Through this harnessing of biology, compounds once locked in the leaves of rare and slow growing plants can be grown by microbes in vats, making the production of fuel, chemicals, and drugs more sustainable and cost effective. Immune cells designed to treat cancer, and bacteria engineered to treat diabetes and rare diseases are becoming a reality thanks to the hard work of synthetic biologists.

Looking at the field from a Canadian perspective, Ontario Genomics published a detailed report (.pdf) outlining how synthetic biology could contribute to existing industries in Canada. Synthetic biology has the potential to bring the Canadian economy into the 21st century, beyond one reliant on resource extraction, to truly leverage Canada’s considerable scientific talent.

With the potential to redefine healthcare, agriculture, industrial production, and green technology, it is difficult to overstate the impact synthetic biology will have on the Canadian economy. Global investment in synthetic biology recently surpassed $1B in 2016 alone, and global economic output from synthetic biology is expected to reach $38.7B by 2020. To put this into perspective, this forecast places the synthetic biology market at the combined value of all Canadian exports of precious metals, gems, refined petroleum, lumber, and wheat combined.

The United States and the UK have recognized the potential of synthetic biology, and have already made significant public investments of $800M and $400M respectively. Canada cannot afford to stand on the side lines of this biotechnology revolution lest Canadian industries lose their competitive edge, compounded by a brain drain of scientific talent.

A Proposal for a Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute

Recognizing the challenge of developing a diverse and highly innovative economy, the Government of Canada has dedicated $950M towards innovation superclusters. The aim of these clusters is to connect businesses, academics, and policymakers, to spur growth in several high-tech fields. This represents an extraordinary opportunity for developing the domestic synthetic biology sector here in Canada, and now is the time to propose ideas on how to accomplish this.

A Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute will set out to accomplish the following goals:

·       Dedicated equipment and facilities for synthetic biology entrepreneurs and researchers
·       An accelerator program to foster the top Canadian synthetic biology research and translate it into new companies
·       A network of students, professors, entrepreneurs, investors, and biotechnology professionals to create a cohesive national strategy for synthetic biology
·       Funded and competitive fellowships for synthetic biology research and entrepreneurship, to train students in business acumen in addition to the latest technical skills
·       A dialogue with Canadian regulatory bodies to encourage support for synthetic biology projects, while ensuring projects are designed to meet Canadian safety standards
·       A strong policy on intellectual property, acknowledging fully inventor-owned IP for technology generated at the institute
·       Focused synthetic biology initiatives within all Canadian innovation superclusters, to foster interdisciplinary applications

A network of university laboratories, accelerators, and private laboratories can be envisioned, collectively under the umbrella of a Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute. Indeed, dedicated synthetic biology institutes outside of Canada already exist, with the United States, the UK, and Australia leading the charge. This can be rapidly established using current resources, to ensure a national strategy on synthetic biology is defined promptly, and outline the priorities of a stand-alone institute.

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Actionable Proposals

A Canadian Synthetic Biology Accelerator

Due to the applied nature of synthetic biology research, the field is primed to create new businesses. Entrepreneurial projects can have an immense impact on the Canadian economy, if entrepreneurs are given the right tools and guidance to explore and test their ideas.

This strategy has worked well for Canadian digital technology in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor, with many accelerators fostering collaborations between large Canadian companies and student-led spinouts from universities. Established Canadian and international companies have recognized the benefits of entrepreneurial approaches to their business, and have partnered extensively with regional accelerators to support their own start-up like projects.

Unlike digital technology start-ups, a synthetic biology entrepreneur cannot make meaningful progress in a café on their laptop. Synthetic biology requires cost prohibitive equipment before the first great ideas can even be tested. This reality presents a barrier to any would-be synthetic biology entrepreneurs, due to a lack of dedicated lab space outside of purely academic environments here in Canada, compounded by significantly lower capital investment compared to digital tech.

With shared core laboratory facilities that multiple academics, start-ups, and small businesses can access, Canadian synthetic biology ventures will have an immediate chance to test and scale their ideas. This will de-risk investment by focusing it to where it matters, rather than having to build a foundation to simply perform basic experiments. Therefore, the growth of Canadian biotechnology innovation can be spurred by an investment in shared scientific infrastructure, with the establishment of a dedicated Canadian Synthetic Biology Accelerator Program to host and mentor synthetic biology entrepreneurs.

Synthetic biology accelerator programmes in Ireland and San Francisco have already shown success with this style of synthetic biology research. Trainees from around the world, including Canadian university students, have tested their ideas in these private labs, gained insight from mentors, and inked contracts with investors. By framing traditionally academic research as an entrepreneurial venture, the fast-paced style of these programs helps spur productivity, leading to dozens of new high-tech companies.

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A Unique Canadian Solution

Canada must foster this spirit of highly skilled entrepreneurship here at home, and capitalize on the excellent post-secondary training available to Canadians. The SynbiCITE accelerator at Imperial College London provides a particularly useful example of a successful hybrid approach between academics and industry partners.

The SynbiCITE Bio-Start competition would serve as an excellent blueprint to kickstart Canadian synthetic biology, and can be envisioned as a national competition to specifically target Canadian industries. Canadian biotechnology, agriculture, and manufacturing firms will be able to partner with the institute-led accelerator program, to harness synthetic biology to solve problems their companies face. By centralizing synthetic biology entrepreneurship under a dedicated institute, Canadian companies will be able to invest in these revolutionary technologies without having to start their own cost-prohibitive research program from scratch.

Key to this accelerator is ensuring involvement from experts and mentors. The JLABS facility in Toronto, and the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology (CASB) at Concordia University are the first potential sources of this expertise. The network of biotech companies fostered by LSO, OBIO, and other Canadian biotech groups would be natural allies of the prospective institute. Mentors from these organizations, either individuals or partnered businesses, would be able to lend their knowledge in biotech entrepreneurship, while benefiting from new talent, ideas, and applications of synthetic biology.

Implementing the Proposals

Although the federal government’s Innovation Superclusters Initiative is promising, the foundation of a dedicated Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute is not contingent on government funding.

Much of synthetic biology research is driven by students, early career scientists, and hobbyists. Fourteen Canadian undergraduate teams participate in the global iGEM synthetic biology competition, developing their own research projects that have gone on to become new biotech companies and intellectual property. The field of synthetic biology has a long history of grassroots-based support. Encouraging this spirit of discovery and entrepreneurship will pay dividends down the line, to spur development of Canadian biotech lead by the highly skilled and enthusiastic students trained at Canadian universities.

As this institute will be established from the ground up, the responsibility is on those who are interested in seeing this through. In other words, if you want to see this institute established, actively lobby your peers, professors, and family to convince them of the importance of synthetic biology.

Although anyone can become involved, I am specifically reaching out for support from the following stakeholders, who I foresee as being key to the foundation of a Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute.

First Steps: A virtual institute to improve synthetic biology’s profile in Canada, and build collaborations between existing stakeholders

·       iGEM teams
·       Synthetic biology start-ups
·       Professors using synthetic biology across Canada
·       International students and professors

Near-term: Establishing the synthetic biology accelerator program in partnership with the following stakeholders

·       Genome Canada
·       Regional Innovation Centres
·       Canadian Universities
·       LSO/other industry partners
·       Hon. Navdeep Bains (Canadian Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development) and the Hon. Kirsty Duncan (Canadian   Minister of Science) and relevant policy makers within the Government of Canada
·       Venture capital firms in Canada and abroad

Long-term goals: Establishing a research program for the Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute

·       Dedicated courses/summer programs for universities and the general public
·       Operating grants for synthetic biology researchers and entrepreneurs alike
·       Funded fellowships for synthetic biology graduate students and post docs, to recruit and retain the top talent

It is my hope that this eParliament Ideas article, accompanying petition, and set of actionable proposals serves as a rallying cry for all synthetic biologists in Canada. Now is the time to have a national discussion about synthetic biology and make significant progress forward, to ensure renewed Canadian excellence and leadership into the 21st century.

About the Author

Ben is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, applying synthetic biology to discover new drugs and engineer cells to deliver them. During his MSc he founded the McMaster University iGEM team, and has also lead several academic student unions. He has a strong interest in career development for students, with a specific focus on biotechnology. If you wish to collaborate in this endeavour, please contact the author at b.scott@mail.utoronto.ca