Developing Standards for Synthetic Biology
At the request of the British Standards Institution, researchers identified the impact the adoption of synthetic biology is likely to have on the global marketplace, as well as barriers to preventing the rapid scale-up and commercialisation of the technology.
One notable finding is that companies think standards will help reduce uncertainty and help to overcome a variety of barriers they encounter en-route to commercialisation.
Synthetic biology, a platform technology that enables the design and engineering of biologically based systems, is an exciting new area of science that has significant commercial potential. The UK government has invested close to £150m in the development of synthetic biology in the last four years, supporting both a science and a commercialisation agenda.
As might be expected in a field characterised by rapid change there are significant uncertainties about the current and future landscapes and trajectories. These include:
- A lack of knowledge of the ways in which companies are currently employing synthetic biology, and their plans for the future
- A lack of knowledge of the general enablers to and constraints of synthetic biology in current commercial and innovation environments
The aim of this study was to identify the impact that the adoption of synthetic biology is likely to have on the global marketplace (buyers, sellers and users), as well as barriers preventing the rapid scale-up and commercialisation of the technology. To meet this aim the project team:
- mapped out the value chain of Synthetic Biology and how it relates to other sectors and industries,
- identified barriers and opportunities of synthetic biology commercialisation,
- assessed standards that could help companies overcome some of the barriers identified.
The project team carried out a literature review and stakeholder interviews, paired with the concept of a value chain to aid their analysis of the synthetic biology sector. The team then used scenarios to explore future opportunities for synthetic biology and to test the role standards might play.
The Synthetic Biology value chain
- The team categorised the synthetic biology value chain into three parts: an idea of the product to be produced; the engineering steps of design, build, test repeated until the desired product is produced; and a scale-up process to produce enough product for it to be usable as a product in its own right, or within other industries.
- The synthetic biology value chain interacts with the value chains in other sectors through i) absorption, where parts or all of the value chain of synthetic biology are used themselves within a sector-specific company, and ii) selling in, where a product is designed through synthetic biology in a company and sold into the production step of a specific sector.
- Economic factors, such as synthetic biology being seen as risky and expensive by investors, and social factors around possible problems of social acceptability of synthetic biology products tended to be the biggest concern of companies.
- While barriers affect companies at all stages of the value chain, the most numerous barriers and challenges emerge at the scale-up stage of the value chain.
- Companies think that standards will help reduce uncertainty and help to overcome a variety of barriers they encounter en-route to commercialisation. In setting standards the community needs to make sure it does not lose sight of the importance of ‘soft’ standards, which can facilitate norms and behaviours within the sector, as well as affect how synthetic biology is perceived by society.