eureKARE stimulates synthetic biology start-ups with studio in Belgium

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With its network of thematic SynBio Studios, investment company eureKARE is boosting the creation of new European start-ups in synthetic biology. Its first EU studio is located in Brussels and focuses on biomedical applications. Things are moving fast, and the studio has already welcomed two companies onboard.

Synthetic biology, or SynBio, involves redesigning organisms for specific purposes by engineering them to have new capacities. The field has long suffered from bad press, exemplified by the controversies around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – animals, plants, or microbes whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. But SynBio has in recent times been cast in a more positive light. Scientists who pioneered the revolutionary gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. SynBio also proved invaluable when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world.

“Thanks to synthetic biology techniques, researchers were able to create the mRNA vaccines that were fundamental in the fight against the disease,” says Kristin Thompson, COO of investment company eureKARE. “This took away a lot of fear about these methods, which is crucial, because they have a huge potential. They can lead to solutions for a better future, like biofuels and alternative food sources.”

Helping Europe to catch up

eureKARE, headquartered in Luxembourg, has since its launch in 2021 unfolded an ambitious plan to boost the creation of SynBio start-ups in Europe. “Europe boasts excellent research, but the transformation of research results into start-ups and commercial projects has unfortunately been lagging behind compared to the United States, and more recently compared to China as well,” says Thompson.

The investment company wants to kickstart more commercial initiatives by bridging the gap between academia and industry. Its solution is to develop a European network of start-up studios – called SynBio Studios – covering several areas where synthetic biology can lead to disruptive innovations and high-value products. “We identify the biggest challenges in those specific areas and look for the best researchers to tackle them,” explains Thompson.

“Europe boasts excellent research, but the transformation of research results into start-ups and commercial projects has unfortunately been lagging behind compared to the United States, and more recently compared to China as well.” – Kristin Thompson

eureKARE then offers hands-on support to boost the SynBio Studio projects. The company helps out with legal, HR & accountancy issues, equity financing, maximization of non-dilutive financing, communications and public relations, networking, and ensuring a continuous dialogue with business development and mergers and acquisitions (M&A) decision-makers.

This unique model differs in two ways from the more traditional model of incubators and accelerators. “We are not waiting for people to come to us; we are proactively getting out there, searching for interesting projects and the right researchers to develop them. We also don’t have a strict policy concerning the length of time that we provide guidance. It’s not like they can only stay with us for two years, for example. We really want to accompany them, with customized guidance, on their growing path.”

Benefits of biotech dynamic in Belgium

The first phase of the development work takes place at the academic labs of partner organizations. eureKARE’s studios are currently virtual, but the company is planning to invest in infrastructure in the near future. The first studio was established summer 2022 in Brussels to focus on biomedical applications, after which a studio in Monaco followed a few months later targeting critical environmental challenges.

“We chose Brussels for our biomedical studio because there is a strong dynamic around biotech innovations in the healthcare sector, for example concerning cell and gene therapy. You furthermore have many large pharmaceutical companies, such as UCB and GSK, that have a big, direct impact on the local ecosystem with their implementation work.”

The virtual Brussels studio welcomed its first company, Dirac Biosciences, at the start of February 2023. Before the month was over, it was joined by EonBio. It’s clear that things are moving fast in Brussels. “And keep your eyes peeled for new announcements,” says Thompson, “The next company is probably coming soon.”

Read this article to find out why everyone needs to be a part of the CRISPR conversation!

The first Brussels SynBio Studio inhabitant, Dirac Biosciences, is using advanced synthetic biology tools to create next generation therapeutics, with an initial focus on battling cancer. It is developing a computational platform for the rapid design of gene circuits for different targets or cancer types, and building circuits that can detect cancer early in the development of the disease to increase the specificity of anti-cancer therapy. Dirac Biosciences has been co-founded by eureKARE and the Technical University of Darmstadt (TUDA) in Germany.

The second company, EonBio, is developing a cutting-edge platform to address unmet medical needs by reconstructing intricate bioproduction systems akin to the ones found in living cells. By engineering living material on silicon chips, the complex synthesis of proteins, metabolites, and other useful biomaterials can be streamlined and scaled. Referred to as ‘cell-free technology on a chip’, this cutting-edge platform has multiple potential applications in drug discovery, design, and development, as well as in biomanufacturing. EonBio was co-founded by eureKARE and Yeda, the commercial arm of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Ambitions for upcoming start-up studios

The development of the second SynBio Studio in Monaco is still in its early stages, but the plan is to focus on topics such as: green hydrogen production; the use of bacteria to deal with contaminants in wastewater; and enabling marine organisms to sense the presence of pollutants in sea water and trigger a decontamination reaction.

The eureKARE team is already thinking ahead to the next studio as well. “It will likely focus on bioprocesses and improving these processes (with complete living cells or their components, ed.), for example to allow for a greener and more cost-efficient production of chemicals.” Thompson is also looking further afield, into space even. “If we consider space to be the next frontier for our population, we can also imagine many opportunities for synthetic biology in space.”