GitHub meets cybersecurity in the biotech lab
GitLife Biotech wants to secure valuable synthetic biology innovations
As well as having real future business potential, I want the startups featured in PreSeed Now to be genuinely interesting. Even if not every startup is the right fit for you, I want this newsletter to open your mind to new possibilities being driven forward by smart, talented founders from across the UK.
Today’s startup really fits that bill. Scroll down to read all about GitLife Biotech. Paying PreSeed Now members get the full story.
By the way, I’ve started to get interest from startups outside the UK wanting to be featured in PreSeed Now.
But as tempting as it is broaden this newsletter’s scope when an interesting founder comes along with something new from somewhere else in the world, I’m keeping the content laser-focused on the UK as there is so much to look at here that I’d rather go deep than wide.
GitLife Biotech combines GitHub and cybersecurity for synthetic biology
Synthetic biology is a field that produces highly valuable IP, but securing that IP isn’t straightforward. You can patent it, but then you have to give away the details of your secret sauce, which isn’t the best idea when you’re still perfecting it. GitLife Biotech (so new it doesn’t have a website to link to yet) thinks it's come up with the solution.
The Newcastle-based startup has two parts to its product: a GitHub-style software platform called CellRepo to provide for version control for genetic engineering development work, and a unique marker that goes into the synthetic DNA, linking it to the appropriate repository in CellRepo.
The real innovation here, says CEO George Neville-Jones, comes from the algorithm that uses data stored on CellRepo to create a unique ‘barcode’ that can be inserted discretely into the biological asset itself. Think of it like a security tag in the DNA.
More protection than a patent?
“The sort of iterations that are happening to biological assets… are of a sufficient level of sophistication that they need a version control system,” says Neville-Jones.
“We now have a way for anyone developing biological assets… to record the modifications they've made, collaborate within their teams and more widely share their information when they need to, but also prove their ownership of that asset, demonstrate the provenance of that asset–where it's coming from, who's done what to it, what's been changed, what those impacts might be–and give them much more control over the distribution and scale of that asset.
“Nobody can use it without their consent, because it's now fully identifiable as their asset.”
As an example, Neville-Jones paints the picture of a university spin-out that has developed an E. coli strain which excretes a valuable chemical. They–and their investors–will want to keep control of that strain so it is harder for others to abuse the IP. GitLife Biotech’s bet is that synthetic biology companies will pay for something more robust than a patent.
“We think it should sit alongside patenting. Patenting is expensive, it's relatively slow, and it requires you to disclose an awful lot of what you're doing, which may give your competitors an advantage,” says Neville-Jones.
“With a DNA barcode, and particularly if we use one of our more confidential versions of those barcodes, you don't have to patent because you know you're protected by the proof of ownership. And if somebody stole a sample of your biological asset and it got into the wrong hands, and you got wind of that, you'd be able to prove that that was your asset and they weren't meant to have access to it.”
GitLife Biotech is in the process of spinning out from Newcastle University. The software and biotech underpinning it was developed there by Natalio Krasnogor, Nadia Rostami, and Leanne Hobbs. Cambridge Future Tech (cofounded by Neville-Jones) teamed up with them to handle the business and commercial side of the startup.
The startup’s product is live with beta users in academia, with the aim to expand into the commercial market from the start of 2023. “We’ll focus initially on the top 10 cell lines that are deployed within synthetic biology but we'll move into other organisms,” says Neville-Jones.
No doubt with an eye on getting it used as widely as possible, the complete version control system will be free for anyone to use in full, although Neville-Jones says it works best when used in conjunction with barcoding. That’s where the startup will generate revenue. There’s a possibility, he says, that additional software features might be available for a fee in the future.
What about Black Mirror-style fears?
This is all fascinating stuff, but it’s hard not to hear someone talking about barcoding DNA and get Black Mirror vibes about dystopian uses for the technology. Neville-Jones says these worries are unnecessary.
“This is only a tool to make what's already being done more safe and more secure.
“There's no need to barcode anything that has not already been modified. If the industry, the consumer, the general scientific community, are happy to have a biological asset modified, then that process is far less risky and far more secure if we can identify whose it is, what it is, where it's come from, all of its provenance data, all of its risk and security data.”
While the startup won’t initially serve the genetically modified food market, Neville-Jones gives an example of supermarkets being able to check the genetic makeup of fruit and vegetables to make sure they’ve been sold the right product. This would potentially be a boon for customer health and safety.