On March 6 2018, Ontario Genomics hosted Canada SynBio 2018, Canada’s first national conference focused on Engineering Biology, in partnership with ISED Canada, the Genome Canada Enterprise, the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, NSERC, MaRS Discovery District and Autodesk alongside generous sponsors Integrated DNA Technologies, Twist Bioscience, and CropLife Canada. Over 275 people attended the packed MaRS Discovery District auditorium for the event. As Marc LePage, President and CEO of Genome Canada, said in his opening remarks, “when we were talking about this event I was picturing a 30-40-person workshop. This area is obviously really hot!”
And the day did not disappoint. MC Ihor Boszko of Ontario Genomics led the audience through a busy day of talks and panel discussions covering topics as diverse as using biology to archive digital data, manufacture renewable chemicals and materials, treat disease, grow sustainable food, and write whole genomes from scratch. If there is one thing that attendees took home with them, it is that Engineering Biology is a platform that can play a significant role in addressing some of the biggest challenges facing Canada and the world today.
There were many highlights starting with Dr. Mona Nemer’s video address. She applauded the spirit of collaboration and coordination on a national scale as key to Canada’s success, emphasized the importance of Engineering Biology for solving important global problems in health care, clean energy, the environment, and shared her personal connection to the field through her PhD thesis, where she worked on the synthesis of DNA and RNA.
On the digital side of things, Bill Peck of Twist Bioscience described his company’s work with Microsoft in digital data storage using DNA and how this will help handle the deluge of data being generated. The AI panel moderated by Alison Paprica, VP of Health Strategy and Partnerships at Toronto’s Vector Institute alongside the speakers Brenda Andrews of the University of Toronto Donnelly Centre, Nathan Magarvey of McMaster University and Adapsyn, and Ratmir Derda of 48 Hour Discovery explored the intersection of AI and synthetic biology and the potential to solve fundamental biological problems as well as in discovering new therapeutics. A common barrier addressed by the panelists was the availability of quality, standardized data that is essential inputs to AI technologies.
Stephen Chambers, CEO of the UK organization SynbiCITE, a national synthetic biology accelerator, summed up synthetic biology succinctly: “Engineering biology to make useful stuff”, an apt description given the focus throughout the day on manufacturing of products. In his keynote, he described why the UK selected synthetic biology as one of eight great technologies to propel UK growth and the metrics he is judged on- jobs and wealth. He stated that the UK government didn’t aim to pick winners, but to bet on the right race and synthetic biology is one they think they can win. He described a level of coordination and collaboration that is enviable, making the UK an ideal model and partner for Canada.
The panel on climate change and synthetic biology, chaired by Catalina Lopez-Correa, CSO and VP Sectors at Genome BC, stressed Canada’s bio-advantage from ample biomass and the critical role synthetic biology plays in converting that into valuable bio-chemicals at commercial scale. Speakers covered the innovation pipeline from academic research shared by Steven Hallam on mining microbes, to David Bressler and Murray McLaughlin of Bioindustrial Innovation Canada discussing scaling technology, to commercial successes shared by Rasmus Jensen of LanzaTech and Cathy Hass of BioAmber. BioAmber is a Canadian success with manufacturing operations in Sarnia, where they produce bio-succinic acid with more than a 100% reduction in greenhouse gases over the petroleum-derived counterpart.
Dr. Molly Shoichet, Ontario’s first Chief Scientist, moderated the panel on human health and synthetic biology. Exciting science was discussed, including a cross-Canada network to manufacture CAR-T cell therapies for cancer treatment presented by Rob Holt of UBC, genetic circuits used for stem cell treatments discussed by Peter Zandstra, and engineered probiotics for GI diseases presented by Krishna Mahadevan. Dr. Shoichet also emphasized the responsibility that rests on everyone in attendance to promote a culture of science in the general community, and especially to engage the public on topics like Engineering Biology to ensure benefits are realized.
While the conference focused on numerous areas of Engineering Biology, a recurring theme was the key underlying technology underpinning applications – DNA synthesis and assembly. Adam Clore shared Integrated DNA Technologies’ work in enabling applications including CRISPR and Francis Ouellette, VP Scientific Affairs at Genome Quebec chaired a panel on writing whole genomes. The panel included Leslie Mitchell of NYU and member of both the synthetic yeast project (Sc2.0) and GP-Write, Bogumil Karas of Western University, working on storing and moving large fragments of DNA, and Vardit Ravitsky who is building ethical and social perspectives (GE3LS) into large projects like GP-Write. The panel concluded with a call for a Canadian Genome Project-Write Consortium by Vincent Martin of Concordia University. To this end, a planning meeting is scheduled for August in Montreal with interested researchers invited to contact Vincent Martin and Bogumil Karas, the two leaders of the Canadian effort.
The topic of GE3LS continued into the agri-food panel, where Jun Axup of Indie Bio moderated a panel where Neal Carter and Dave Conley talked about the Arctic (non-browning) Apple and AquAdvantage Salmon as Canadian success stories, with Jennifer Kuzma of NC State and Ian Affleck of CropLife Canada emphasizing the need for public engagement and a robust regulatory system to ensure acceptance of innovative products.
The afternoon also focused on the robust startup scene of synthetic biology, with early stage companies raising over $1.7B in 2017 globally. The investor panel moderated by Joško Bobanović of Sofinnova Partners included the largest private investor in synthetic biology, Sean O’Sullivan, who has invested in 9 Canadian companies through his Indie Bio and Rebel Bio accelerators, as well as other leading investors Jenny Rooke from Genoa Ventures, Andreas Jurgeit of M (Merck) Ventures, and Canadian investors JF Pariseau of BDC Venture Capital and Ken Nickerson of OMERS Ventures. It was a real treat to have these industry leaders lend their time, with some visiting Canada for the first time, and provide their outlook on the field as well as tips to the audience on how to get their investment (hint: use Fedex, not email!).
The lightning talks panel moderated by Anita Ludwar of Genome Alberta showed the bright future Canada has in Engineering Biology, and was a chance for companies to pitch their platform technologies to the investors. We heard about variant libraries and strain development (Ranomics and Designer Microbes) and products from water sensors for mining wastewater (FREDsense), cannabinoids for the pharma industry (Hyasynth Bio), natural flavors and fragrances (Ardra Bio), and educational kits for students (Amino Labs). HJ Wieden from SynBridge in Alberta talked about the importance of space and equipment for these companies as well as the benefit of programs like iGem to get students excited about entrepreneurship.
The Day ended with Yung Wu, CEO of MaRS Discovery District and conference partner, underscoring the importance of the field and MaRS’ role in supporting the startup ecosystem. Dr. Bettina Hamelin, President and CEO of Ontario Genomics, closed the day, summing up the highlights and ended with a forward-looking question:
“If the passion of the researchers and companies represented in this room is any reflection of Canada’s potential in the field of synthetic biology, then Canada’s potential is enormous! The question is: How do we unlock this potential and harness our collective knowledge, experience and creativity to position Canada as a global leader in the field?”
Her comments emphasized that the day wasn’t just about learning. It was about mobilizing the community to come together, create opportunities for collaboration and partnership, and to develop a strategy for Canada to capitalize on this emerging area. This was done informally over coffee and the networking reception held in the Autodesk Community Space, but it continued into March 7 in a more intentional way through a day long workshop.
March 7 Workshop
The purpose of the workshop day was to understand opportunities and challenges for Engineering Biology in Canada and to identify specific opportunities and a path forward. Topics included leveraging Canada’s existing strengths in areas like regenerative medicine, agriculture and advanced manufacturing (especially in the bioeconomy), building on international efforts like the Genome Project Write, and equally critical, regulation and public engagement. Attendees were incredibly engaged throughout the day, with great ideas developed, shared and discussed. The day ended with a panel of some of Canada’s leading funders including Dr. Mario Pinto (President, NSERC), Dr. Ted Hewitt (President, SSHRC), Dr. Paul Lasko (Director, Institute of Genetics, CIHR), and Mr. Marc LePage (President and CEO, Genome Canada). While there is much work to do to chart a path forward for Canada to lead, there are exciting opportunities including a $275M trans-disciplinary fund jointly administered by the tri-council and the potential for future technology platforms like bio-foundries to support the community.
Dr. Hamelin summed up the hope of the day by saying “this is just the start of the national and international dialogues we need to have. These conversations started in 2009, but now – for the first time – we have representation from multiple disciplines and sectors, and from across the country and beyond. It’s time to put things on paper and to run with it.”
The results of the workshop will be published in a discussion paper in the coming weeks. We invite the community to reach out to us to discuss their ideas for this exciting area and to continue to embody the spirit of collaboration that was present throughout the two days. Most importantly, we invite everyone to join in this effort to move Canadian synthetic biology beyond talk and to start walking the walk.
We invite the community to reach out to us firstname.lastname@example.org