By Daniel Hunter

Cutting-edge synthetic biology companies received a boost today (Thursday) with a £5.3 million government cash injection. The investment from the Technology Strategy Board and Research Councils will help to fund 15 projects across the UK.

Synthetic biology applies the principles of engineering design to biological systems and processes. Scientists believe that it may lead to new applications, such as novel systems for energy and chemicals production, medical therapies, biological computers and innovative ways to clean up hazardous waste.

One of the companies to benefit from the government funding is Synthace, who are based at University College London. Synthace use micro-organisms to convert small molecules into different, more useful products. The aim is to produce high value chemical products, such as bases for fragrances and air fresheners, from cheap industrial feedstocks such as rapeseed oil.

Speaking during a visit to Synthace, Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said:

“Synthetic biology is one of eight key technology areas that I have identified as playing an increasingly important part in the global economy over the coming years. The UK is well positioned in the biological sciences sector and is among the first economies in the world to invest in this exciting area of technology.

“Companies like Synthace can help the UK exploit the massive potential that synthetic biology has both here and abroad. By making investment in technology now, it will ensure that in ten years time the UK is at the forefront of the global race when it comes to commercialising new technologies.”

Synthace’s CEO, Sean Ward, commented:

“This funding will enable us to bring together a unique suite of technologies for the rapid engineering of a micro-organism which can produce a commercially high-value chemical. The project will demonstrate a new way of engineering biology, with timescales in months rather than years, which will impact sectors across the UK and global economies.”

The Minister announced grants totalling £5.3 million which were awarded through a competition for business-led, collaborative projects aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of using synthetic biology to create novel or improved products or processes.

Funding came from the Technology Strategy Board, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Each of the applications was also assessed according to a series of responsible innovation criteria.

Iain Gray, Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board, said:

“Synthetic biology is an emerging technology that can play a really important part in the UK’s economy. Our aim in supporting these projects is to help bring together a range of organisations that together, with our help, can develop the products and processes to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of this sector.”

Synthetic biology, although a newly-emerging technology, is already bringing commercial success to UK companies. TMO Renewables, for example, who received funding previously from the BBSRC, developed a ‘thermophilic (heat-loving) microorganism’ — hence ‘TMO’ — to efficiently convert carbohydrates into ethanol fuel from a wide range of non-food feedstocks at high temperatures. In 2010, the company announced a deal with Fiberight where the TMO technology would be used in 15 plants to be built in the USA for the production of bioethanol from household waste.

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