EXECUTIVE INTERVIEW – BiologIC Technologies: The Future Microsoft for the Biorevolution
BiologIC Technologies is a world leader in the development of 3D architectures for powerful, miniaturized, and highly integrated life science automation. These proprietary architectures enable entirely novel workflows with extreme power, integration, and flexibility and will empower scientists driving the future of synthetic biology to configure bespoke systems, in a manner analogous to the Custom System on Chip proposition offered in the electronics sector. The company is on a mission to provide scientists with novel applications to innovate, develop, and run biological workflows “at the speed of thought.” Drug Development & Delivery recently interviewed Richard Vellacott, Chief Executive Officer of BiologIC Technologies, to find out more about the technology and its applications in the future of medicine and wider fields of synthetic biology.
Q: Can you give us an overview about the company and tell us how and why BiologIC Technologies was started?
A: Humanity faces three enormous challenges: feeding 9.8 billion people by 2050, mitigating climate change, and mitigating the existential threat of disease. But we now also have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to solve these challenges. We are at the start of a bio-revolution in which 60% of the world’s physical inputs could be made using “biology-by-design,” including new foods, materials, fuels, and medicines that will be significantly more powerful and more sustainable.
BiologIC’s pioneering vision, inspired by insights from the semiconductor industry, is to become the enabling architecture that drives this bio-revolution. Our breakthrough digital hardware allows rapid development and execution of novel, high-value, and high-volume biological workflows in powerful, affordable, and highly integrated application-specific 3D bioprocessing units. Our architectures are being developed to advance research, diagnostics, and therapies, such as new vaccines, and will power the next generation of synthetic biology at scale.
Q: Could you tell our readers about your grand vision?
A: Our grand vision at BiologIC – which is deliberately bold and disruptive – is to build a powerful new digital hardware platform that can run many different protocols and help scientists produce “biology by design” – that is, make it much easier to produce whatever biology they want, whenever they want it. This approach of biology by design will enable much more insightful, reproducible, and scalable discovery and development of new therapies.
Why is BiologIC’s approach important? Well, if you can picture the old photos of mainframe computers in the 1950s – big, complicated machines that needed a lot of expertise to run and were not very versatile – that’s how we see biology labs operate today. They are big labs with specialist but difficult-to-use robots and poorly integrated instruments that stifle the creativity and productivity of highly trained scientists and constrain the pace of innovation.
We are building a system to fast forward biology into a much more creative, collaborative, and productive future and unleash the biological creativity of brilliant scientists. They might use the BiologIC system to discover new biology, manufacture vaccines or other treatments, or make the next generation of foods and biofuels that reduce climate change.
Q: Could you tell our readers about BiologIC’s proprietary platform technology and how it was developed?
A: The core of our product is our flagship three-dimensional (3D) bioprocessing unit. It’s about the size and shape of a Rubik’s Cube and, if you look inside this cube, it contains complex 3D fluidic circuitry that performs all the functions of a biological laboratory. This “lab-in-a-box” plugs into a universal instrument, in the same way computer chips plug into a motherboard, and gives a powerful system that lets you program biology. We’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from how silicon chips are designed.
BiologIC exploits additive manufacturing and what’s really exciting about it is that – for the first time – this enables “digital hardware,” with all the design information held on a computer. This means the hardware design can be developed and rolled out very rapidly, in the same manner as software updates. Our system is designed to speed up work in laboratories on everything from new vaccines to fight coronavirus or lab-grown food to more environmentally friendly biofuels that will have a big impact on the future of global challenges related to health, climate change, energy, and so on.
Q: Can you tell us more about your intended markets and applications?
A: Our main applications are in synthetic biology – designing biology to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges in food, fuel, and medicine. Ever since the industrial revolution, we have made incredible progress, but it is taking a heavy toll on climate change and environmental sustainability – and only providing very limited access to incredible new medicines, such as the latest vaccines, and cell and gene therapies. The synthetic biology future will be about solving these global challenges through more efficient food production, greener biofuels, and more accessible precision medicines.
This is where BiologIC comes in. We are helping to enable the next wave of synthetic biology through powerful new ways to integrate and operate biological processes that are capable of producing biology by design at any scale. In much the same way mainframe computers have reduced in size to laptops, tablets, and smartphones, we are creating a lab within a Rubik’s Cube-size unit. Modern laboratories are often essentially collections of very sophisticated but poorly connected machines, with scientists employed to perform mindless tasks rather than engaged in mindful creativity. What we are trying to do is miniaturise the lab and let the scientists do what they are most interested in – collaborate and break new ground in science.
Q: Can you provide an update on your development status and how COVID-19 has affected your business?
A: COVID-19 has underlined the existential importance of biology – it impacts everybody on the planet every second of every day. COVID-19 also provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rapidly accelerate the major trends that had already been emerging and to shift to fundamentally new paradigms – for example, sustainable new solutions in food production, energy generation, and accessibility to precision medicines. The pandemic has highlighted in stark terms where our classical approaches fall short and has provided a rare window of opportunity for disruptive innovation.
BiologIC is uniquely placed to enable these major global vectors and create significant disruptive value through powerful new applications of synthetic biology. Our technology gives us the ability to integrate many multidisciplinary capabilities in powerful new ways that allow us to take a holistic approach in unlocking the power of biology. For example, our approach enables dynamically adaptive and highly integrated new workflows, the ability to operate artificial intelligence and machine learning directly on the biology, and the ability to rapidly scale out from the research lab to the patient or consumer. In short, our digital hardware allows us to put the biology first.
In precision medicine, for example, because we integrate in-line metrology into our system, we can monitor the performance of the biology and use this information to adapt the workflow on a real-time basis. Furthermore, we can exploit a benefit of additive manufacturing – that “complexity is free” – giving us the ability to parallelise many workflows. These technical features provide many direct benefits, including in-line quality control of therapies, efficient use of expensive reagents, more effective selection, engineering and expansion protocols, greater throughput and so on.
We are fortunate that our proprietary digital toolchain has meant we have not suffered any significant disruption from the pandemic, and our product development continues to progress very rapidly. We have been able to build exciting new partnering opportunities with disruptive pioneers to develop solutions from proof-of-concept to commercial products, and we are building a world-leading network of collaborators across academic, biotech, pharma, and technology communities to develop the powerful new biological systems of the future.
Q: What are the unique features and advantages of your business model?
A: We like to refer to our platform as “physical firmware.” Because our hardware designs are digital, they can be evolved and iterated very rapidly. In fact, the rapid but precise approach enabled by our proprietary digital toolchain aligns particularly well with synthetic biology’s pioneering mindset. Synthetic biology adopts an engineering approach to biology, whereby it is treated as a complex system that can be analysed into predictable – or at least highly characterized – components. In the field of medicine, this synbio engineering approach is being used to develop sophisticated new precision therapies that might incorporate, for example, multiple gene-editing events.
Development of synthetic biology products is predicated on a clearly defined design-build-test-learn cycle to explore and deploy these constituent biological parts. However, using classical approaches, this cycle is relatively slow, poorly integrated, and expensive – and suffers from low throughput. Because BiologIC can integrate these workflows in new ways and, moreover, iterate the hardware as rapidly as the biology, scientists can explore a much greater experimental space with high-quality characterization data, at greater throughput and attractive economics.
This approach also allows our customers to ”scale out” their research into manufacturing rather than undertake a high-risk endeavor to scale up the biology, allowing them to retain much more of the value of their bioproduct as it is commercialized. Unlike classical manufacturing, our approach also enables what is known as “mass customization” in that our fabrication process is agnostic as to whether we produce thousands of standard units or thousands of custom units. This is of great benefit where customers combine a number of standard lab protocols with certain proprietary processing steps, meaning we can truly enable the hardware to be optimized around the biology.
This approach also allows bioproduction to be located wherever is most appropriate as the particular therapy dictates. As we transition from the blockbuster therapy model to the latest niche-buster precision medicines – where each therapy is produced as a discrete batch – there is a strong argument for greater decentralization of manufacturing capability. Our response to this is that the patient dynamics and specific treatment regime should dictate the location and scale of bioproduction – our intention is to enable this bioproduction anywhere in the continuum of centralized or decentralized locations.
Q: Can you tell us more about what we can expect from BiologIC in the future?
A: If I were to make a prediction, it is that the next big global technology company will be a biological technology company. There are so many clear and pressing needs for new solutions to global problems, and many of the solutions lie in synthetic biology.
The world can’t wait 10 or 20 years for classical technologies and approaches to make a difference. We imagine a future where scientists are free to do what they do best, which is work together to understand biology, develop new treatments, and produce new foods and fuels that make a difference to the biggest global problems. And we hope BiologIC will play an important role in that future by driving new biological capabilities that are orders of magnitude more powerful than they are today.
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