Accelerating the bioeconomy: an interview with Alex Williamson from Bio Market Insights
Taking an application to the market is not an easy task. Doing it alone is virtually impossible. Bio Market Insights is aiming to foster collaborations and networking among scientists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers. I had the chance to interview Alex Williamson, the company’s CEO and ask hime about the company and the Synbio Markets event they are organizing in Berlin.
Kostas Vavitsas: How did Bio Market Insights start and where do you see its role in today’s biotech landscape?
Alex Williamson: Bio Market Insights was born out of the convergence of a number of circumstances. Some time working in the oil and gas industry gave me first-hand experience of the damage we are doing to the planet and the associated pollution, carbon emissions and global warming. It was clear that we need to work harder to find solutions, and that this will require new ways of thinking, policies, business models, approaches, and technology.
In 2014, at a drinks reception of an oil and gas event, a chance discussion around biorefining and bioplastics introduced me to the bio economy and the circular economy. This gave thoughts a clear focus and I dived right into the industry, speaking to people from across the value chain. What quickly became clear was that whilst there was a lot of innovation in the space, a lot of it was confined to academic, scientific, or technical conversations. There was no bridge to the existing business world, and existing businesses lacked a clear view on how to implement bio-based or circular thinking and solutions into their existing value and supply chains. In turn this was making it very hard for start-ups to attract investment, scale and generate meaningful partnerships and business with incumbent industrial players.
That was the seed for the idea of Bio Market Insights. We launched in 2015 with the mission to foster the commercial adoption of bio-based and circular solutions at scale. We saw an opportunity to position ourselves as the bridge between the growing industrial biotech sector and their potential end markets, helping to drive innovation from lab to market. Four years on and we’ve seen the industry blossom. Consumers are now pressuring brands to proactively pursue sustainable solutions, in turn brands are opening up to discussions around real world circular solutions, and this is making it easier for start-ups to step into the space, raise capital, do business and scale.
We now have a network of over 50,000 industry decision makers from across the industrial biotech value chain, including policy makers, academics, investors, start-ups, science and tech innovators and end market corporates. We provide networking, connections and business intelligence online at Bio Market Insights, and connect the industry at our two industry leading live events World Bio Markets and SynBio Markets. It’s been an exciting four years since launch, and the next four years look even better!
Kostas: What should we expect from Synbio Markets 2019? Why do you hold the event in Germany?
Alex: As with many industries key drivers for growth revolve around cost, efficiency and added value. This is magnified in the industrial biotech sector, where innovators are attempting to and highly time and cost-efficient value and supply chains in hundred-year-old industries. If we are truly to compete and affect change then bio-based solutions need to match incumbent solutions on both cost and efficiency, and (or) deliver added value.
Over the last four years we have seen a big increase in investment and innovation in synthetic biology. Scientific and technical advancements are positioning synthetic biology as a cross-sector platform with the potential to offer dramatic improvements in cost, efficiency and added value across industrial biotechnology process engineering and conversion technologies. Could synbio be the key to unlocking the potential of the bio economy?
Well, again we came across a similar challenge! We surveyed over 100 synthetic biology businesses, and 87% told us that their number one priority over the next 3 years was securing their first commercial partner.
A lot of incumbent industries don’t even know what synthetic biology is. There are a few meetings in the US and Europe, but often these are synbio industry insider gatherings. To drive adoption, we need to get the ultimate end markets in the room and into the conversation; these potential purchasers that will drive change in the agriculture, food, chemicals, materials and pharmaceutical industries.
SynBio Markets is taking place from 18 – 19 November in Berlin and is a first of its kind. We’re both putting a spotlight on the European synbio space and bringing in the end markets to learn and connect with the synbio industry. is the dedicated, market facing global event for the synbio sector. Linking science to business and focused on turning potential into profit, we are connecting synbio investors, academics and innovators to commercial end market customers
And that is why we’ve picked Germany as the location. Whilst the UK is arguably leading synbio innovation in Europe, Germany is home to big industry across the core end markets that synbio addresses. We are bringing the synbio sector to the end markets, across the agriculture and food, chemicals and materials, and healthcare and pharma industries.It’s two days, bringing together over 250 global synbio decision makers, focused on the latest innovations in across regulations, investment, gene editing, sequencing and synthesis, organism engineering and design, hardware and software automation and end market applications. You can register here!
Kostas: Continental Europe is behind when it comes to Synthetic Biology companies and investments, even in countries traditionally strong in biotech. Why do you think is that, and do you see any change in the future?
Alex: I think it’s partly cultural, and partly financial. In the US you’ve got the “American Dream” mindset. They are very entrepreneurial, very wealthy and willing to back private companies with big money. They’re willing to give it a go, be aggressive, fail fast and enjoy the big wins when they do come off. The infrastructure, talent and money is there in the Bay Area and in Boston to spin companies up quickly and get them up and running. In addition, technology transfer out of universities is arguably smoother in the US and more closely aligned with the private sector.
Arguably Europe has a slightly more conservative, academic and grant-driven approach to innovation. This creates a lot of excellent outputs but can occasionally create bottlenecks in converting from academia to start-up, due to issues around funding, technology transfer etc. That’s why we’re putting a lot of emphasis on connecting the European synbio market of policy makers, academia and start-ups together with the investors and corporates that can help to bridge this gap.
And we are seeing progress and development. Whilst the numbers don’t yet match up to the US, there is a lot of innovation in Europe, particularly in countries like the UK, France, Netherlands, and Germany. Yes, Big US venture capital is leading the way, but the trend is mirrored in Europe as the European synthetic biology industry shows signs of coming of age. Investment in Europe has risen from around $100 million in 2016 to over $340 million at an incredible CAGR of 77%. Year to date investments of over $310 million sees European growth outstripping global trends and on course to substantially beat the 2018 figures.
There are also many relevant existing and new funds in Europe which are turning their attention to synbio (many of them will be at SynBio Markets)! In addition, we have been surprised at the level of interest from US corporates and funds that are interested in coming over to Europe as they see many opportunities here for future growth and development.
The bulk of the money is in seed and early stage venture, but we are starting to see an increase in late stage venture and the occasional IPO pointing to a need for synthetic biology companies to focus on building partnerships and revenue. SynBio Markets will help shine a focus on who is investing, where they are investing and what companies need to do in order to scale and drive adoption that will ensure their success and the broader adoption of synthetic biology across incumbent, mainstream industries, such as agriculture, chemicals and healthcare markets.
Kostas: Out of the recent synthetic biology concepts or companies you’ve heard of, which one is you favorite? And which one has the best chance to be profitable?
Alex: That’s a tough question. I certainly see synthetic biology as a platform that cuts across multiple verticals and there are a lot of smart and creative people coming up with a mind-blowing array of ideas and applications. One that immediately springs to mind is DNA data storage. Recently there has been so much hype around blockchain and distributed computing as an answer to growing data transmission and storage challenges. But what if that’s not the answer! Maybe the answer is DNA data storage!
The idea has been around for a while but costs are coming down fast, and I’m particularly interested in what companies like Catalog are doing in the space. They claim that the world will generate 160 zettabytes of data in 2025 (more bytes that observable stars in the universe), and that DNA data storage solutions will allow us to meet these needs, storing millions of times more data in the same volume as conventional solutions, lasting for thousands of years, and giving the ability to physically own massive amounts of your data.
Beyond that I’m also very interested in the role of synbio in the future of food. With a forecast global population of 10 billion by 2050, coupled with ever degrading ecosystems (another topic entirely, but an important one!), it is going to be a challenge to feed everyone. I’m watching the lab-grown meat and alternative proteins industries with interest. As technology improves and costs come down it’ll be interesting to see what contributions these innovations will make to the global food supply chain.
Kostas: The whole hype about synbio took roots after the 2008 financial crisis. Can you speculate how a potential financial crisis might affect the field?
Alex: It’s a very hard question to answer. Often a recession can act as a catalyst for innovation with new inspiration, ideas and successes rising from the ashes. Of course, on the flipside money is harder to come by and that makes for a competitive landscape across fundraising and survival rates. Like any industry, I would hope that genuine innovation that offers time and cost efficiencies and added value will prove their worth and be able to thrive and gain market share in what will be competitive times.
However, the industry is still at a very early stage and will require policy and funding support and there is a risk that this could dry up during a recession. In the end good businesses will succeed, and that’s why we put such an emphasis on helping the market understand business cases, product market fit, benefits and value add, and connecting innovation to end markets to help the synbio sector thrive.
Personally, I’m from the UK, I run a business out of the UK with a predominantly global customer base, and I see the UK as a leader of the European synbio space. Therefore, it’s fair to say that I’m not particularly happy about Brexit. And the current situation is farcical. There is far too much uncertainty at home and in Europe, and that is not good for anyone. I’m a big believer that human’s come up with the best, most creative, and most effective innovations and successes when they work closely together in a collaborative environment, and I hope that continues within the synbio space post Brexit. I also hope that post Brexit the UK government still invests appropriately in synthetic biology, which it currently does have a big emphasis on as one of the Eight Great Technologies.
A serial entrepreneur, with two successful exits, Alex is passionate about growing and engaging with communities in forward looking industries that matter,with a particular interest in the role of technology in delivering a sustainable future.In his role as Co-Founder and CEO of Bio Market Insights his current focus is on innovations driving the development of the circular economy from lab to market.