One surprising aspect of the just finished Synthetic Biology 3.0 conference in Zurich was how little the agenda was taken up by corporate players. Even though the obligatory "We thank our sponsors' poster behind the speakers was crammed with the logos of Syngenta, Microsoft, Roche, Merck, Novartis and others, the investment pitches were at least taking place off the podium.
However, no sooner was the jamboree over than fresh news about a new initiative in California served as a sharp reminder of Syn Bio's new corporate masters.
The Joint Bio Energy Institute (JBEI), announced yesterday, is a 125 million dollar collaboration between six Californian research labs. It will be headed up by Synthetic Biologist Jay Keasling. The JBEI will focus on synthetic biology and metabolic engineering work to develop new fuels. The six partners are the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia), the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the University of California (UC) campuses of Berkeley and Davis, and Stanford University.
What is notable is the agressively commercial language of the announcement in which Keasling, now styled as CEO, boasts “The DOE JBEI will be organized like a biotech startup company", promising to "seek collaborations with companies that have relevant scientific and market capabilities in energy, agribusiness, and biotechnology.”
In addition to maintaining an Industry Partnership Program, the JBEI research will be guided by an Industry Advisory Board whose membership will come from key sectors, including feedstocks, enzymes, fuels production, biotechnology, genetics and chemistry.
Keasling further adds that “This organizational structure and culture is intended to ensure rapid commercialization of the DOE JBEI R&D,” - The message from these publically funded synthusiasts is clearly "open for business".
At Synthetic Biology 3.0 there was some real concern amongst attendees about the parrallel proposed 500 million dollar deal being negotiated between the University of Berkeley in California and oil giant BP Amoco. BP who are setting up an Energy Biosciences Institute (along with CEO Keasling) are buying access and exclusive rights to Berkeley's SynBio research and capabilities.
There is a strong Stop BP-Berkeley campaign which wants to do exactly what its name suggests (ie stop the deal). Curiously that wasn't the message that had been carried to Zurich. Lawyer Stephen Maurer, who last year spearheaded the synthusiasts attempt at self governance, was this year lobbying for "a better deal for Berkeley"... entreating other concerned souls not to oppose the corporate takeover of academia but to lobby instead for a "better" (kinder, gentler?) corporate takeover of the academy.
The BP-Berkeley deal, the new Joint Bio Energy Institute, and also the recent job hop by John Melo of BP fuels to Amyris Biotech - are all extra strings tying the interests of the Syn Bio community ever closer to the interests of big business. It should be noted that in each of thse cases CEO Keasling plays a central role. The same man who claims to be developing Synthetic Biology to serve the worlds poor (via synthetic artemisinin) seems to be rather busy these days serving the fabulously rich.