About the participants:

Prof. Dr. Chase Basel (CB) wears multiple hats. His interaction with the EBRC started as a professor of chemical engineering at North Carolina State University in the US. He became a council member of the EBRC and is, till today, part of the policy and international engagement committee. In this role, he shapes and supports the direction of the EBRC. In 2018 he transitioned to the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI) in Germany, got connected to the SynBio community in Germany, and became Vice-Chairman of the German Association for Synthetic Biology (GASB).

Dr. Nicolas Krink (NK) is co-founder of GASB and served as the organization’s CEO for many years and has shaped the SynBio community in Germany. He is now part of the advisory board of GASB and works as a researcher at the Center for Biosustainability at the Danish Technical University. He is still passionate about the SynBio community in Germany and worldwide and how policy-making and network-building can foster the rise of this discipline globally.


NK: Hello Chase. You went to Singapore last month to join the EBRC Global Forum as a representative of SynBio in Germany, as GASB Vice-Chairman, and as part of the EBRC committee of international engagement. What was your impression of the global state of SynBio?


CB: Hey Nico, indeed, I was wearing multiple hats at the EBRC global forum. In a few words: There are definitely promising signs of advancement and an acceleration of international cooperation, but there is still a really long way to go to fully utilize the potential of SynBio.


NK: That is good news! So the EBRC took the lead and invited everyone to Singapore. Would you consider the EBRC and, thus, the US as a global leader? Why Singapore? Is it Asia’s SynBio Power House?


CB: I would say EBRC and its predecessor SynBerc were definitely significant catalysts of synthetic biology, particularly in the US. Now, it is necessary to drive SynBio forward on a global scale. Several other locations started focusing on SynBio and joined EBRC’s mission. SynBio in the UK has taken shape, mostly due to the engagement and lobbying of individuals such as Paul Freemont and Richard Kitney. Similar traction could be found in Singapore, led by Matthew Chang, who made a great effort to create connections throughout east Asia. We see several already quite advanced crystallization points, and now we need to find ways to increase interaction and support everyone that is still catching up.


NK: How do you think Germany is holding up? Are we one of the crystallization points?


CB: I would say Germany is somewhere running behind. This is surprising because I think Germany has the workforce, infrastructure, and economic strength to drive SynBio forward. Globally we are not really competitive and not even really recognized. There’s no broad framework for synthetic biology. We have research organizations that could cover the full spectra that SynBio needs to flourish in, from understanding the fundamental design principles of life with the Max Planck Society to transition and even commercialization with Helmholtz and Fraunhofer. The research infrastructure is there! We are missing the interlinking of those for SynBio. The potential is there, but I think it will take a real catalyst.


NK: I agree with you. Personally, to me, SynBio in Germany feels very fractured. We are simply missing a shared vision that unites everyone under one roof. It seems that other countries like the US and the UK got a top-down mission, where the government recognized the power of SynBio and gave a clear direction. 


CB: Yes, absolutely! Everyone is focusing on their topic. It is striking that counties with a clear SynBio strategy appear to flourish. One reason might be funding but also the uniting vision and strategy that you mentioned. Furthermore, support for community building and policy-making is needed to transform Germany into a SynBio hub.


NK: You mentioned funding and strategy – everyone outside of the US watched the executive order of the Biden administration with excitement but also with a bit of jealousy. What were the voices at the forum whispering? Do you think it will have an impact globally?


CB: I hope so! It should be a wake-up call for economically strong countries to develop their strategy and push SynBio forward. I don’t think countries like Germany will discard synthetic biology because of major advances by countries such as the US. There are many challenges, and we need national but also global SynBio strategies. I hope that countries like Germany will try to catch up.


NK: What are the global uniting challenges for SynBio? 


CB: It’s truly multifaceted, and there is no real common issue or challenge that could be solved together that’s preventing further advancements. It comes down to individual countries and broad themes like societal acceptance, how to deal with biosafety and security, how regulation impacts development, governmental investment, and the recognition that SynBio has the potential to solve global challenges. Climate change and sustainability were featured as challenges by several countries.


NK: We talked now a bit about the community. SynBio is coming of age, and we have already discussed the economic impact not only but in particular for the bioeconomy. Do you think we need to extend the community toward Venture Capitalists?


CB: You are right; there is more startup activity in Germany in the SynBio area. Compared to, e.g., the UK, we need to get more venture capital, especially for SynBio. In the UK, we see even the starting of SynBio-specific funds and an overall more vibrant startup landscape, also in SynBio. This could be a role model for Germany, and I hope to see leading VC funds getting in touch with the SynBio community. It’s very promising that Sprin-D, the German Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, is increasing the focus on SynBio, as recent recruitments indicate.


NK: Yes, that is really exciting news. They will soon announce their first biomanufacturing challenge. You heard at the forum also about the activities of other SynBio organizations. What lessons did you learn from them, and would you like to share them with the SynBio community in Germany and GASB? 


CB: Overall, it seemed like countries with institutionalized organizations are doing better. These are also the countries with organization-driven strategy development. I mean, GASB, for what it has been, is a remarkable student-led organization. It’s been a great way to bring the community together and to get the next generation of researchers excited about synthetic biology. However, it’s sad to see how quickly these active members seemed to drop off when they made the next step in their training and career. We need to find ways to make GASB a stronger force within Germany and extend its reach and impact.


NK: I agree with you; we need to make the next step with GASB but also with SynBio in Germany. What would you suggest are the next required steps? Getting the community together to discuss the strategy?


CB: Yes, that is a great first step. But we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Great efforts have been made in other countries, and we can learn from them. If they all apply to our situation, they should be discussed. Having the individuals that had an impact on pushing for national strategies together with the community in Germany, it will be a great mixture. This could be the great seed for a strategy development process but also the start to institutionalize GASB and make it future-proof. Maybe join forces with EBRC as one of the forum’s outcomes was to have more international collaborations and interaction.


NK: I think that is an amazing closing statement that gives us quite a bit of food for thought, as well as a great outlook on what we should be doing next! Thank you, Chase.

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