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Engineering Biology in Cambridge


Tom Meany reports on the recent Bio-Hackathon held by CUTEC in the Department of Plant Sciences and supported by the SynBio SRi's SynBio Fund.

The original article can be read here


72 sleepless caffeinated hours saw 50 competitors from across the world try to solve some of the biggest challenges facing biology. They used software, hardware and, for the first time during any hackathon, used bioware to tackle problems. The goal was to make biology automated and reproducible with the long term application of creating disease resistant crops, new antibiotics, new products and novel medicines.


Teams came from all over the world with expertise as diverse as Computer Science, Genetics, Medicine, Art/Design and Performing Arts. This meant that the event was a wonderful learning experience and focused on dynamic solutions. Every member of a team thought differently and that breadth of experience led to some fantastic solutions (learn more about our teams at 1min 30s in video below). One team of artists thought about how to integrate design-thinking with biology, another built an ultra-low-cost prototype microfluidic system, one group thought about a way to compare low cost DNA synthesis. There was also a number of med-tech ideas, including a sensing toothbrush and  a household plant that can filter air. The team who came up with an idea of how to efficiently data mine information on drug-drug interactions won the award for the Best Scale Up Potential provided by Deep Science Ventures . Read more in this recent Labiotech article by Dani Bancroft

Our overall winners focussed on building a web interface to enable to design and fabrication of novel DNA parts using a "cloud-laboratory" Transcriptic (listen to winner Evgeny Saveliev on BBC radio - 1hr 41 mins here!). This team (Evgeny Saveliev,Shannon DoyleHana JanebdarPablo LubrothClaus WeilandKelvin Zhang) will now enter the Cambridge Judge Business School Accelerate Cambridge Programme. They hope that their invention can be taken forward as a product to help the next generation of bio-entrepreneurs. 

Check out Cambridge TV's coverage of our event starting at 1min 30s. 


We had some intense mentorship from passionate, talented and engaged experts from a range of disciplines. Chris Grant from London based startup Synthace taught us how to code biology using Antha, a new programming language for automating biology. Helene Steiner from Microsoft Research spoke about how design thinking should be a part of every single step on the product or prototyping cycle. Cambridge Consultants taught teams how to prototype in the real world with hands on advice from their amazing team of world class engineers and product designers. Beth Wolfenden from startup Bento Bio taught teams how to use portable technology to study biology in resource limited locations. Eduardo Gianni of the London Biohackspace taught teams how to problem solve on a shoe string! John Cumbers inspired teams into action through his community driven startup SynbiobetaNassia Inglessis and Sydney Schaefer joined us to talk about interactive inventions and how physics meets biology and then meets design. Founders Elliot RothTrevor Nicks and Seki Anderson taught teams what it means to be a bio-entrepreneur from first hand experience at their startup Spira which is now based in the Indiebio accelerator. 

This event could not have been possible without the amazing support of some passionate academics, local businesses and institutions. First of all a huge thanks to the Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club (CUTEC) who made this event possible. Team members Freddi, Chow, Nelly, Carolina Jeroen, Vaska, Kadi, Peter, Sanjana, Shiqing, James, Sarah, Ron and Akshara made this event a success. Thank you!

Thanks to the University of Cambridge Department of Plant Science teaching Lab (especially Barbara Landamore and Sue Aspinall), the University Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative (especially Jenny Molloy and Jim Haseloff), the Cambridge Judge Business School (especially superstar Maximilian Ge!), the Biochemical Society and SynbiCITE. Local businesses and startups helped every step of the way, Cambridge Consultants (especially the amazing Synbio team Richard, Pari, James, Mary, Alim and Nick), IndieBio (especially Steven O'Connell), Spira (teamElliot RothTrevor Nicks and Seki Anderson), Cloud Laboratory Transcriptic (especially Ben Miles for your patience, guidance and support!) and Gilson (Susanna Lovell for the fantastic demo of PIPETMAX).

Thanks goes to the amazing participants who came with such passion, drive and excitement! Make sure to keep in touch and follow us on twitter @CUTEC to learn more about our future activities.