Royce responds to Engineering biology Call for Evidence

The Engineering Biology Call for Evidence (closing date 29th September) is being carried out by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) to inform its development of UK Engineering Biology policy. The Government is clear that Engineering Biology is currently driving extraordinary progress across the bio economy, creating opportunities including replacing petrochemicals, transforming the agricultural sector, and revolutionising healthcare.

Engineering Biology describes the application of engineering principles to biology, enabling the construction of new or redesigned biological systems, such as cells or proteins.

From a materials science perspective, the UK is leading the way in enzyme catalysis, biophysics and biomolecular engineering; indeed researchers at the University of Manchester, where Royce has its Hub, are making significant contributions to catalysis science. Current work is focused in chemicals, materials and fuels, but the technologies being developed show promise in many other areas and applications – particular in the field of life sciences and medical technology. Areas showing particular promise are in biological and self-healing adhesives, sustainable plastics and exciting alternatives to existing materials for example enzyme engineering, re-coding bacteria to create a petrochemical and biological polymers for use drug delivery.

However, Royce has also flagged a continuing theme in such consultations, that the ecosystem for early stage spinouts is underdeveloped. In terms of funding and infrastructure, while we have a number of fantastic partners including the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the levels and duration of funding fall somewhat short of what we need if we are to see real process and a step-change in innovation.

In terms of important pilot scale assets for developing engineering biology services and products – the equipment and skills needed for running pilots and proof of scalability – there is also room for improvement. There is a huge amount of promising materials science research underway across Engineering Biology – however, much of it is still highly academic nature. The UK needs to create the infrastructure that allows for that commercial translation of key breakthroughs.

Royce acknowledges that while it offers fantastic, state-of-the-art small-scale facilities to both academic and industrial researchers to test and evaluate materials, it needs to be able to connect into facilities that allow for scale-up – to transition from millilitres to litres.  This would see us taking synthetic biology concepts and translating them into solutions to the problems we are facing as a society – and do this across energy, environment and healthcare. Such investment would also de-risk investment opportunities in this burgeoning technology.

Another critical success factor to ensure we translate research in this field, is the requirement for universal standards and materials verification methods; at the moment Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) teams are working to differing types of levels and standards – Engineering Biology is an emerging technology and it is important we create a level playing field for all.  This will support researchers to demonstrate some real wins to the commercial world, and provide the confidence to drive much needed investment into the types of new products and services that could be truly game-changing. Such universal standards and verification will also help us to combat the insidious problem of so called “greenwashing” – such positive environmental claims would not stand up when held up to uniformly agreed and published standards. Royce is working with NPL to further this ambition.

The newly formed Materials Innovation Leadership Group  which is being facilitated by Royce, will continue to work this up through the newly developing National Materials Innovation Strategy. This will be critical in setting out the recommendations and actions which will help us to deliver a much more joined-up approach across Government, industry and the wider materials community across priority areas of materials science.