Developing a Synbio Start-up From Scratch

This article is a guest post by Robbie Oppenheimer, a synthetic biology PhD student, currently working on self-assembled structures and devices.


If you’re a synthetic biologist in the UK, you’re probably considering entrepreneurship. Wondering whether you could make more of a difference in industry than academia? Worried about the scarcity of academic jobs after PhD or postdoc? Feeling the push for ‘impact’ from your university or funding body? Got some flash new biotech that could make our world cleaner, greener, healthier and richer? In any case, I highly recommend the SYNBICITE 4-day MBA.

It’s an interactive course designed for budding entrepreneurs, from postgrads to seasoned academics. I participated in December 2017 – our course had around 30 participants, including a few from Europe. We spontaneously formed small teams on the first evening of the course, and together created a playful pitch for investors on the final day of the course.

‘Cryptech’ – the winning team during the 4-day MBA Dragon’s Den aimed to design a genetic system that is difficult or impossible to sequence, enabling all synthetic biologists to protect genetically encoded intellectual property.

The 4-day MBA was jam-packed with interactive seminars and workshops (including lectures during dinner!), from diverse experts including serial entrepreneurs and fresh young entrepreneurs, scientists, patent attorneys, media and PR consultants, communication and negotiation consultants, investors, and more. The material covered was similarly diverse – while you clearly cannot come out of the course as an expert in any of these areas, it was detailed enough to give you confidence to learn more in future and to begin conversations with any of these people without feeling like a complete fool.

Moreover, it was really fun! The organisers Simon Bennett and John Collins do a great job of nurturing a collaborative, creative space for you to chat freely among new friends.


If you are interested in this sphere, I cannot encourage you enough to take the 4-day MBA NOW. In the meantime, here are a few of my personal take-home lessons:

  • Great science is necessary but not sufficient for a great biotech business. There is a whole set of ingredients that need to come together in the right place at the right time – the idea, the team and the culture, the IP and freedom to operate, the business model and market, the investors and mentors, PR, and more. I came into the course with an ignorant and patronising attitude that scientists in industry do not solve ‘real problems’ in the way that a scientist might, but learned how these other aspects of businesses can be just as fascinating, challenging and necessary to solve as any scientific problem.
  • There are many ways to skin a cat. Not all cats should be skinned. Entrepreneurs solve problems, and there is a tendency for scientist-entrepreneurs to search for problems that can be solved by their specific research. Since there are many solutions to any given problem, it may instead be much easier to start with a problem and search for solutions.
  • The money is waiting. As scientists we are accustomed to scarce funding. But I was surprised to learn that there will always be investment in a certain bet with a good return. If you can demonstrate how an investment in your business is likely to perform positively in future, then investors will line up. For example, if they invest in many startups (say 10) with a small chance (say 10%) of making a big return (say 2000%), this is a pretty good bet of a very decent return (100%) on all investments. The flip side of this is that many of the unsolved challenges in our world may exist not because of insufficient technology, capital or motivation, but rather because no-one has yet found a profitable way of solving these problems (e.g. what is the business model for sequestering a billion tonnes of carbon?).
  • You can do it. You have developed capacities as a student of Synthetic Biology (technical skills, problem solving, teamwork, ability to learn quickly, and so on). You have become resilient in the face uncertainty and experimental challenges (i.e. hitting your head against a wall during your Masters or PhD). If you want, you can be an entrepreneur.

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