There are benefits to being a late bloomer

What’s the nicest way to put this?  Australian synthetic biology has some catching up to do.  If you wanted to say it more directly, Australian synbio has gotten off to a slow start.  It’s not as well established as other parts of the synthetic biology world. The infrastructure, the support network, that complex collection of different distinct but interrelated factors you can only describe as an ecosystem is just taking root.   Want to see what synthetic biology as a discipline looked like in the distant past of 2010? Come to Australia.  It is the younger sibling of the synthetic biology world.

Now before you think I’m being mean, this is being told to me by Australian researchers who have a knack of directly facing up to the difficulties they face and the work they need to do to build the ecosystem here.  They know Australia is playing catchup.

And they tell me it may be one of the greatest advantages Australia has.

After all, there are substantial benefits to learning from what has already been established and sidestepping the mistakes made by the forerunners in a field.   Take Genome Foundries for example.  These are hot must-have pieces of kit in the synthetic biology world and you’ve made it as a serious player once you have a foundry. After all they are great for high-throughput manufacture and testing of genetic constructs, taking synthetic biology from a craft – small sets of components assembled by a few scientists – to an industry thanks to automation. 

Let’s not forget robots are also inherently cool.

The USA has its foundries.  The UK has several.  Singapore? Check.  Canada unveiled its earlier this year.  Australia is currently establishing two, in Brisbane and Sydney.  By being a bit late to the party, it has the opportunity to see what has worked, what hasn’t and what needs to be adapted to work in Australia.  A highly centralised model perhaps?  Or hub-and-spoke to spread capabilities around the country?  Maybe even mini-foundries, not with the high capacity as the big ‘uns but well suited for local requirements. 

Of course, starting later also means you can buy the newest equipment and avoid legacy problems as what was cutting edge becomes out-dated.

And don’t think Australia is content to be second tier.  Another advantage of building your ecosystem while learning from more established ones is the opportunity to leapfrog over the difficulties others faced and head straight to the top table.

How do you build an ecosystem to foster top-notch synthetic biology?  Well I think I knew exactly who to ask to get an answer to that….


(Thank you to all the members of University of Queensland who met with me and the discussions we had over many, many flat white coffees.)

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