Engineering biology: a priority for growth

More partnerships between industry, academia and government are key to a thriving engineering sector.

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The world we find ourselves in today is unrecognisable from how it was six months ago. We are asking big questions which go beyond working from home, reaching into decarbonisation, agriculture, and healthcare – with the latter understandably receiving particular attention at present.

These are all areas where engineering biology can have immense impact. Engineering biology is the application of rigorous engineering principles to the design of biological systems, with the objective of contributing to economic activity and sustainable and resource-efficient solutions. From companies like Colorifix engineering microorganisms to clean up the textile industry, to Puraffinity using customised biomaterials for water treatment, it’s an exciting area to be in.

We have a world-leading engineering biology research base established through government investment, a vibrant community of start-ups, and substantial changes in the UK investor landscape in recent years reflecting the global interest and energy in this sector. Technological advances are propelling progress, and there are clear industrial, societal and environmental problems that, if solved, could give the UK an unmatched competitive edge.

So much has happened in the past decade. This appears to be the perfect environment for the UK to become an engineering biology superpower, but instead we’re seeing a real risk of research, talent, ideas and investment moving abroad. What can be done? 

This is what we set out to explore at the Academy, conducting a policy project and publishing a report,  Engineering biology: A priority for growth. We’ve engaged with government, industry, SMEs and academia to understand the issues. And we may be on the path to success. 

The UK is at a crossroads: the engineering biology landscape is disjointed, with groups speaking different languages and too much focus on tools and platforms, which confuses government, industry and the public. We must ensure that government, universities and businesses are brought together to support the growth of engineering biology businesses, stimulate business-university collaborations, and connect those with problems to the problem-solvers. A shift to an applications focus, both in what is funded but also how researchers and SMEs talk about their work, will accelerate real-world products, processes, and changes.

As the world stands, we are now experiencing the perfect storm of drivers. What many are calling for is an overhaul of many of the systems framing our lives. Our use of fossil fuels and reliance on intensive agriculture are not givens. Harnessing biology and supporting ideas through to commercial solutions are better alternatives.

Even before this global overhaul, many across this space have been calling for change. We are now expecting sector groups for pharmaceuticals, chemicals, food and agritech to define how engineering biology can help overcome challenges and see the UK lead the world to a more sustainable future.

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