Creation of a Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute

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Why Synthetic Biology Matters

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, the production of fuel, chemicals, and drugs is becoming more sustainable and cost effective. Immune cells designed to treat cancer, and microbes engineered to treat 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.

 In support of 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 early career scientists 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

We the undersigned urge the 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, to support the foundation of a Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute.

This petition is only the beginning of a concerted effort to foster Canadian synthetic biology, and advance biotechnology within the Canadian economy. If you wish to collaborate in this endeavour, please contact Benjamin Scott, a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto b.scott@mail.utoronto.ca

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 Actionable Proposals

A Canadian Synthetic Biology Accelerator

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.

Importantly, a Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute should not be a purely academic endeavour. 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, but only if entrepreneurs are given the right tools and guidance to explore and test out their ideas.

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 fund synthetic biology entrepreneurs. 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 grow their ideas, without having to invest in their own cost-prohibitive equipment.

Synthetic biology accelerator programs 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.

 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 is in the same spirit of the Canadian innovation superclusters initiative, and would serve as an excellent blueprint.

A Unique Canadian Solution

Both academic projects and entrepreneurial ventures would compete for entry into the accelerator program, offered by the Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute. This approach to research would help maintain an application-focused drive, while elevating the visibility of promising projects to secure additional investment.

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.

 A similar strategy can be envisioned for synthetic biology, to use these technologies 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.

The JLABS facility in Toronto, and the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology (CASB) at Concordia University are the first potential seeds for a dedicated Canadian Synthetic Biology Institute. Whether these existing facilities could be grouped into a collaborative “supercluster” in contingent on the government’s definition, but both would certainly benefit from a cohesive national strategy for synthetic biology.

It is my hope that this petition and set of actionable proposals serves as a rallying cry for all synthetic biologists in Canada, and all others who are excited to foster new synthetic biology initiatives. Now is the time to have a national discussion about synthetic biology, to ensure renewed Canadian excellence and leadership into the 21st century.



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