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Expert View: How China is catching up with the US in new applications of synthetic biology.

Posted on Jun 21, 2018 5:48:00 PM

PatSnap - Synthetic Biology ReportSynthetic biology (synbio) is an emerging field with a global market size expected to reach nearly £30 billion ($38.7 billion) by 2020. That’s according to Allied, the market research company that also predicts that synthetic technology developments will advance the understanding of science and create as-yet-unseen practical applications in that area.

Here, PatSnap, an organisation that exists to help support the synbio industry and to provide information on innovation trends, has published a report that takes a focused look at the developments behind it – technology that, Hejab Azam from PatSnap explains, could one day be used to mitigate the effects of environmental pollution. In the report, PatSnap explores the state of synthetic biology in China and why the Asian superpower could one day eclipse the current leader in this area, the US, thanks to a sustained period of government investment.

PatSnap’s new synthetic biology innovation report reveals that the US has the highest number of patents relating to applications of synbio – 594 International Patent Documentation (INPACDOC) families, accounting for 25% of all filings in this area. China is catching up though, with 334 INPADOC families (14% of all patent filings). One reason for the growth in synthetic biology research is the rise in R&D and funding initiatives from several governments, especially in China’s.

Environmental concerns in China are pushing research in synthetic biology

The rise of synthetic biology research in China shouldn’t come as a surprise – it was the first country to make synthetic insulin 50 years ago. Now the country’s synthetic biology market is flourishing because the Chinese government has laid out ambitious plans to achieve dominance in several advanced technology areas. Key technology areas include biotechnology, artificial intelligence, quantum science, computing, robotics and nanotechnology. The government is investing lots of resources in synthetic biology, by subsidising and funding R&D in this area.

Historic research has revealed that by 2030 the annual amount of solid waste in China will increase to over 480 million tons, from 190 million tons (as recorded in 2004). The Chinese environmental office also admits that there’s an increase in pollution of waterways. The Chinese government hopes that research in synthetic biology will result in useful applications to reduce environmental pollution. For example, synthetic biology research relating to genetic circuits could enable host organisms to act as biosensors and bioreactors, sensing and breaking down environmental pollutants.

PatSnap’s innovation report, Breakthroughs, enabling technologies and key trends, reveals that although companies in the US and China are filing patents relating to applications of synthetic biology, Chinese patents lean more heavily towards environmental applications. Terms like ‘waste water’, ‘soil remediation’ and ‘degrading bacteria’ appear frequently within Chinese patent documents but rarely in US patents.

However, reversing a decade’s worth of pollution and environmental damage is not easy. Collaboration and sharing of knowledge between companies is needed for us to reach the pace of innovation necessary to tackle the environmental crisis.

How can collaboration with Chinese companies help grow the synbio market?

Collaboration enables sharing of knowledge.

One of the major barriers to commercialisation in synthetic biology is that the level of scientific knowledge is not currently sufficient to make the most of what synbio promises.

According to Professor Zhao Guoping, Director of the Synthetic Biology Laboratory at Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences, there’s poor exchange of information, lack of integration and innovation around equipment and intellectual property rights. “Synthetic biology is a developing science in a developing country. International collaboration is crucial to make the field develop quickly and to transform the industry.”

Sharing IP and collaborating with Chinese partners would enable cross-pollination of synthetic biology applications and a maturation of the market.

Collaboration allows access to less-restricted markets

Regulatory hurdles are another barrier in synthetic biology research, especially in the US and UK. For example, in the US, there are strict regulations on the applications and uses of synthetic biology research, because of concerns about bioterrorism and harmful bioengineered organisms. These strict regulations could be said to restrict R&D, innovation and economic growth in the synthetic biology industry. Partnering with Chinese firms would allow you to access a blossoming market, with fewer regulations and restrictions.

Collaboration in the biotechnology industry is not new. Just last year, ChemChina acquired Syngenta for $43 billion in a bid to boost China’s domestic agricultural output. Chinese international collaboration is increasing in other advanced technology areas too, as reflected by the recent partnership between Google and Tencent. The automotive industry is also seeing plenty of partnerships between companies that specialise in different automotive technologies. An example of collaboration in synthetic biology is The University of Manchester's and the Beijing Genomics Institute's five-year partnership. Joint exploration in this industry could help mass commercial adoption of synthetic biology applications.

To find out more, download PatSnap’s free synbio report, which analyses patent data to uncover trends, breakthroughs and key companies in synthetic biology.

Hejab Azam is a copywriter at PatSnap.  


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Dave Songer