Explainer: How Synthetic Biology is Redesigning Life
Synthetic biology (SynBio) is a field of science that involves engineering life for human benefit. It has the potential to reshape many facets of society—from the ways we produce food, to how we detect and cure diseases.
It’s a fast-growing field of science. In fact, by 2026, the SynBio market’s global revenue is expected to reach $34.5 billion, at a CAGR of 21.9%.
While this fascinating area of research is worth paying attention to, it might be daunting to wrap your head around—especially if you don’t come from a scientific background. With this in mind, here’s an introduction to synthetic biology, and how it works.
What is Synthetic Biology?
As we touched on in the introduction, SynBio is an area of scientific research that involves editing and redesigning the biological components, systems, and interactions that make up life. By doing this, SynBio can grant organisms new abilities that are beneficial to humans.
It’s similar to genetic engineering, however, it’s slightly more granular. While genetic engineering transfers ready-made genetic material between organisms, SynBio builds new genetic material from scratch.
SynBio has applications across a myriad of fields, with research covering everything from space exploration to drug discovery. Here’s a look at five of its real-world applications:
1. Medical Technologies
SynBio has a wide range of medical applications, including drug discovery, antibody production, and vaccine innovation (it’s been key in the fight against COVID-19). It also plays a significant role in “living drug” development, which is the use of living microbes to treat chronic or severe illnesses.
2. Sustainable Energies
Biofuel, which is renewable energy that’s derived from living matter, could replace petroleum and diesel in the near future—and synthetic biology technology is helping develop fermentation processes that will produce biofuel more efficiently.
Bioremediation uses living organisms to restore polluted sites to their original condition. This field uses SynBio to try and make the decontamination process more efficient, and to expand the list of contaminants that bioremediation can target.
4. Food and Agriculture
SynBio plays a significant role in cellular agriculture, which is the production of agricultural products directly from cells rather than livestock or plants. These modified foods might have higher nutritional value, or might be void of allergens. For instance, this can be used to make plant-based burgers taste more like meat.
5. Space Systems and Exploration
Synthetic biology and 3-D printing have huge potential to sustain life during space exploration. Using SynBio technology, cells and bacteria could be modified to produce a myriad of materials—from plastic to medicine, and even food—and astronauts could print these synthetically engineered materials on-demand while in space.
Zooming in: the Science Behind Synthetic Biology
Now that we’ve touched on SynBio’s use in a wide range of industries, let’s dive into the science behind it. In order to understand the mechanics of SynBio, it’s important to explore the relationship between DNA and protein production.
Proteins are the drivers of life in a cell—they’re responsible for carrying out all of life’s functions. They are created through a process called protein synthesis, which relies heavily on DNA. Why is DNA so important in protein production? Because it houses all the information a cell needs for protein synthesis.
Once a protein is formed, it embarks on a complex journey throughout the cell, interacting with a number of other proteins and cellular components to perform functions needed for the cell’s survival.
This process of protein production and cellular interaction is an example of a biological system. And it’s this biological system that synthetic biologists investigate, and try to manipulate.
The Five Main Areas of Research
After combing through the literature, we identified five major areas of SynBio research:
- In silico Synthetic Biology
Meaning “via computer”, this area of SynBio research uses computational simulations to design and predict new biological systems. It’s like using a drawing board before starting a project.
- “Unnatural” Molecular Biology
An area of research focused on altering the smallest unit of DNA—nucleotides.
This area of research deals with larger segments of DNA like genes or chromosomes, and sometimes other cell components that interact with DNA. It aims to create new proteins or protein systems and is the most popular area of SynBio research.
- Synthetic Genomics
Focused on altering and manipulating whole genomes (which is the complete set of a cell’s DNA).
- Protocell Synthetic Biology
This field of research aims to construct whole cells. This is a step towards creating organisms that are entirely synthetic
While early research in SynBio struggled to finish real-world projects, innovation in this field has ramped up quickly in the last decade.
Synthetic biology products are becoming increasingly more pervasive in everyday life—so much so that by 2030, some scientists believe most people will have eaten, worn, or used something created through synthetic biology.
Ranked: The Most Innovative Companies in 2021
In today’s fast-paced market, companies have to be innovative constantly. Here’s a look at the top 50 most innovative companies in 2021.
Ranked: the Top 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2021
This year has been rife with pandemic-induced changes that have shifted corporate priorities—and yet, innovation has remained a top concern among corporations worldwide.
Using data from the annual ranking done by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) using a poll of 1,600 global innovation professionals, this graphic ranks the top 50 most innovative companies in 2021.
We’ll dig into a few of the leading companies, along with their innovative practices, below.
Most Innovative Companies: A Breakdown of the Leaderboard
To create the top 50 innovative company ranking, BCG uses four variables:
- Global “Mindshare”: The number of votes from all innovation executives.
- Industry Peer Review: The number of votes from executives in a company’s industry.
- Industry Disruption: A diversity index to measure votes across industries.
- Value Creation: Total share return.
For the second year in a row, Apple claims the top spot on this list. Here’s a look at the full ranking for 2021:
|Company||Industry||HQ||Change from 2020|
|3||Amazon||Consumer Goods||🇺🇸 U.S.||--|
|5||Tesla||Transport & Energy||🇺🇸 U.S.||+6|
|6||Samsung||Technology||🇰🇷 South Korea||-1|
|9||Sony||Consumer Goods||🇯🇵 Japan||--|
|12||LG Electronics||Consumer Goods||🇰🇷 South Korea||+6|
|14||Alibaba||Consumer Goods||🇨🇳 China||-7|
|17||Cisco Systems||Technology||🇺🇸 U.S.||-5|
|18||Target||Consumer Goods||🇺🇸 U.S.||+4|
|19||HP Inc.||Technology||🇺🇸 U.S.||-4|
|20||Johnson & Johnson||Healthcare||🇺🇸 U.S.||+6|
|21||Toyota||Transport & Energy||🇯🇵 Japan||+20|
|23||Walmart||Consumer Goods||🇺🇸 U.S.||-10|
|24||Nike||Consumer Goods||🇺🇸 U.S.||-8|
|25||Lenovo||Technology||🇭🇰 Hong Kong SAR||Return|
|26||Tencent||Consumer Goods||🇨🇳 China||-12|
|27||Procter & Gamble||Consumer Goods||🇺🇸 U.S.||+12|
|28||Coca-Cola||Consumer Goods||🇺🇸 U.S.||+20|
|29||Abbott Labs||Healthcare||🇺🇸 U.S.||New|
|30||Bosch||Transport & Energy||🇩🇪 Germany||+3|
|32||Ikea||Consumer Goods||🇳🇱 Netherlands||Return|
|33||Fast Retailing||Consumer Goods||🇯🇵 Japan||Return|
|34||Adidas||Consumer Goods||🇩🇪 Germany||Return|
|35||Merck & Co.||Healthcare||🇺🇸 U.S.||Return|
|37||Ebay||Consumer Goods||🇺🇸 U.S.||Return|
|38||PepsiCo||Consumer Goods||🇺🇸 U.S.||Return|
|39||Hyundai||Transport & Energy||🇰🇷 South Korea||Return|
|41||Inditex||Consumer Goods||🇪🇸 Spain||Return|
|44||Disney||Media & Telecomms||🇺🇸 U.S.||Return|
|45||Mitsubishi||Transport & Energy||🇯🇵 Japan||New|
|46||Comcast||Media & Telecomms||🇺🇸 U.S.||New|
|47||GE||Transport & Energy||🇺🇸 U.S.||Return|
One company worth touching on is Pfizer, a returnee from previous years that ranked 10th in this year’s ranking. It’s no surprise that Pfizer made the list, considering its instrumental role in the fight against COVID-19. In partnership with BioNTech, Pfizer produced a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year. This is impressive considering that, historically, vaccine development could take up to a decade to complete.
Pfizer is just one of four COVID-19 vaccine producers to appear on the list this year—Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca also made the cut.
Meanwhile, in a completely different industry, Toyota snagged the 21st spot on this year’s list, up 20 places compared to the rankings in the previous year. This massive jump can be signified by the company’s recent $400 million investment into a company set to build flying electric cars.
While we often think of R&D and innovation as being synonymous, the former is just one innovation technique that’s helped companies earn a spot on the list. Other companies have innovated in different ways, like streamlining processes to increase efficiency.
For instance, in 2021, Coca-Cola performed an analysis of their beverage portfolio and ended up cutting their brand list in half, from 400 to 200 global brands. This ability to pare down and pivot could be a reason behind its 20 rank increase from 2020.
Innovation Creates Value
As this year’s ranking indicates, innovation comes in many forms. But, while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, there is one fairly consistent innovation trend—the link between innovation and value.
In fact, according to historical data from BCG, the correlation between value and innovation has grown even stronger over the last two decades.
For example, in 2020, a portfolio that was theoretically invested in BCG’s most innovative companies would have performed 17% better than the MSCI World Index—which wasn’t the case back in 2005.
And yet, despite innovation’s value, many companies can’t reap the benefits that innovation offers because they aren’t ready to scale their innovative practices.
The Innovation Readiness Gap
BCG uses several metrics to gauge a company’s “innovation readiness,” such as the strength of its talent and culture, its organization ecosystems, and its ability to track performance.
According to BCG’s analysis, only 20% of companies surveyed were ready to scale on innovation.
What’s holding companies back from reaching their innovation potential? The most significant gap seems to be in what BCG calls innovation practices—things like project management or the ability to execute an idea that’s both efficient and consistent with an overarching strategy.
To overcome this obstacle, BCG says companies need to foster a “one-team mentality” to increase interdepartmental collaboration and align team incentives, so everyone is working towards the same goal.
Timeline: Looking Back at 10 Years of Snapchat
A high level look at Snapchat’s 10-year history, including user growth, innovative product design, and the twists and turns along the way.
Looking Back at 10 Years of Snapchat
Over the years, many ideas have emerged from the dorm rooms at Stanford University, but not all of them evolve into billion dollar companies.
Snapchat, however, has beaten the odds. The company’s stock has recently shot up during the COVID-19 pandemic, a bright spot in a decade of highs and lows.
The graphic above is a high level look at Snapchat’s 10-year history, including user growth and financials. Snapchat’s wild ride from start-up to massive success is well documented, so we’ll focus on key elements of story—product design, the Facebook rivalry—and look at how the company is doing today now that the hype surrounding the app has died down.
But first, a quick history…
Setting the Scene
Snapchat originally began its life as a project called Picaboo in 2011.
Cofounders Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown, who were attending Stanford, began building an app that could send photos that disappear after a certain amount of time.
Picaboo was renamed Snapchat in 2012, and by the end of that year, it was clear that the start-up was onto something big. A $13.5 million Series A financing in early 2013 helped fuel the company’s explosive growth.
Positive Momentum: Product Design
One of Snapchat’s biggest strengths over the years has been innovative product design. Many of the features we now see baked into every social app originated from Snapchat.
Here’s a quick rundown of Snapchat’s key feature and product development over the past decade.
Of all the features listed above, the concept of stories is perhaps the most significant contribution to the digital landscape. Disappearing short-form videos started off as a messaging tool, but ended up transforming the way people share their lives online.
As well, the forward-looking acquisition of Looksery in 2015, helped introduce millions of people to augmented reality (AR). AR continues to be a major growth driver for Snapchat today, as advertisers embrace the Lenses feature.
Negative Momentum: Facebook Rivalry
To Mark Zuckerberg’s credit, he realized the potential of Snapchat early.
When the company was only one year old, the Facebook CEO offered the Snapchat founders $60 million to buy the company. When they rejected the offer, Facebook almost immediately launched an app called Poke which was extremely similar to Snapchat’s offering. You’d be forgiven for not knowing what Poke is, as the app received a tepid reception and was quietly shut down in 2014.
“I hope you enjoy Poke.” – Mark Zuckerberg, in an email to Evan Spiegel
For Snapchat, Poke was a blessing in disguise as it brought even more attention to their growing app. Mark Zuckerberg, however, was not done trying to steal the company’s thunder. After offering $3 billion in cash to purchase Snapchat (the offer was once again rebuffed), Facebook copied a number of features from Snapchat and integrated them into Instagram.
Stories were a massive hit for Instagram, and Snapchat, which could not yet match Instagram’s scale, took a big hit. Growth began to slow noticeably after that Instagram update.
Snapchat hit rock bottom in 2018 after shares dropped below the $5 mark, and user growth had stalled out. As well, underwhelming sales of Snapchat’s Spectacles product garnered negative press and hurt the brand’s “cool factor”.
Today though, the situation looks much different. The app still has a strong market share with the younger demographic, and close to 300 million daily active users. Snapchat was one of the many digital companies to benefit from the COVID-19 pandemic (or, at least, the increase in digital content consumption), and the share price has rocketed to new highs. One other promising indicator is the company’s rising average revenue per user, or ARPU.
Of course, as the last 10 years have shown, success is not guaranteed. TikTok is still a significant competitor with a lot of momentum, and tastes can change quickly in the digital world. That said, there is a positive path forward for Snap Inc.
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