How UK can lead brave new world of engineering biology

09 May 2022 | Muriel Cozier

Taking a joined-up approach promises to transform the UK’s engineering biology ecosystem. Headshot of Ian ShottAhead of SCI’s Engineering Biology – Applications for Chemistry-using Business event, Ian Shott, Executive Chairman at Shott Trinova, tells Muriel Cozier why there is now no time to waste.

Right: Ian Shott, Executive Chairman at Shott Trinova

Engineering biology uses engineering principles to manipulate biological systems and processes that can benefit human life. It is the junction at which many disciplines meet and combine to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues, from climate change to health. Progress in AI, digital technology, data, biology and machine learning can now all be used in processes for maximising the impact of these systems.

‘The human genome project has provided us with the opportunity to look at biological systems and engineer them in ways that we would not have thought possible,’ says Ian Shott, Executive Chairman at Shott Trinova. ‘This, combined with the advances in an array of digital technologies provides a golden opportunity to develop solutions for an array of critical problems.’

The UK leads the way

Shott explains that the UK, as an innovation test bed, has led the way in developing many of the enabling technologies for engineering biology. This has been strongly supported by government with substantial grants from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

But Shott fears that the UK risks losing its leading status as the level of support from government and UKRI reduces with the expectation that the critical ground work and foundations are now in place. Unfortunately, the development cycle times are long (10-15 years) and sustained support is required to catalyse private and corporate investment.

SCI News - 09 May 2022 - Ian Shott Interview - image of Deepmind logo

The UK is the birthplace of leading companies in AI and machine learning, such as DeepMind and Arm, which have been pivotal in the development of new digital technologies. | Editorial image credit: Postmodern Studio /

‘The UK has led the way in many areas such as AI. Companies such as DeepMind, and Arm – both founded in the UK – are just two examples of businesses that have made great advances in the area of AI and digital electronics. We have seen what the UK has achieved in leading the way for the development and deployment of new vaccines, which has combined an array of technologies. What we need now is to ensure that there is a coherent and cohesive approach for bringing together all the necessary technologies, which the UK has advanced, and continues to lead in these important areas of science.’

Shott’s concern is that engineering biology, by necessity, has very long investment cycles and this is hampering investment. ‘Scaling up the great work we are seeing requires certainty, not only for the researchers but also for the investment community. We also need to be able to engage a wider group of stakeholders. Engineering biology has a vital role to play in tackling many of the challenges the world is facing.’

A joined-up approach is needed

While engineering biology may not have had as much industrial engagement as Shott believes it needs, there are signs that the wider business community is catching up and is targeted by UKRI for accelerated translation and scale up. During June 2021, UKRI announced that it was working closely with the Defence Science Technology Laboratory to establish a new engineering biology programme. On announcing the programme UKRI said; ‘Building on existing foundations, UKRI aims to provide the opportunity to retain and sustain the UK’s world leading capability in engineering biology.’ These developments are part of UKRI’s strategy to establish a proposed National Engineering Biology Programme.

SCI News - 09 May 2022 - Ian Shott Interview - graphic of DNA helix

UKRI is working towards a National Engineering Biology Programme.

Shott welcomes this development, but argues that this type of investment needs to be sustainable over a longer period of time and the quantum might need to be increased to catalyse sufficient commercial engagement. ‘Things are happening in a rather organic manner, which may not be sufficient. I would say that currently the government is working in departmental silos, and is therefore not able to set out a coherent strategy,’ Shott says.

He is hopeful that the new Advanced Research Invention Agency (ARIA) may provide a useful complementary structure. ‘ARIA is modelled on the US DARPA, which achieved great things, so we expect that engineering biology will receive more support from this new body. I would even argue that engineering biology needs its own government minister with a remit to coordinate action and support in a seamless manner across the different relevant departments.’

Building on the momentum, SCI will host a one-day event looking at the engineering biology landscape. Leading players, including Bayer, Croda and GSK will be sharing their perspectives on not only the importance of engineering biology, but also ways to address the hurdles faced.

Engineering biology – applications for chemistry-using business will be held on 23 May at SCI’s headquarters in London.

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