Engineering biology techniques can accelerate our ability to develop sustainable solutions to many of our current challenges

Urgent action must be taken by the UK to capitalise on the potential of its engineering biology research and industry base or it risks losing its world-leading position in the field, according to a report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The report, Engineering biology: A priority for growth,
calls for support from outside and within the various business sectors to accelerate commercialisation of world-leading UK research that it is on the verge of rapid expansion at a time when other nations are vying to dominate in this area.

Engineering biology applies rigorous engineering principles to designing biological systems, with potentially ground-breaking applications across a host of sectors: food, chemicals, materials, water, energy, health and environmental protection. From clothes made of spider silk, to meat alternatives and using microbes to manufacture fuels - engineering biology techniques are starting to provide sustainable solutions to many of our current challenges. In doing so they are creating new businesses that could make a huge contribution to the UK economy, whilst disrupting existing industries with faster, greener and cheaper products and processes.

The report recommends building better connections between well-established bio-technology companies and synthetic biology start-ups and spinouts to scale and adopt emerging technologies and ensure UK companies are international leaders in engineering biology. Businesses and universities need incentives to work together, the report finds, as this kind of collaboration could help overcome the inherent language barrier between the two groups and speed up the development of real-world products and services.

Engineering biology needs to be demystified, according to the report, as the technologies involved are often misunderstood, to ensure businesses, policymakers and the public are aware of the opportunities they provide. A further challenge highlighted in the report is that the relevant government-funded research networks and infrastructure need sustainable long-term investment for them to pay dividends.

Ian Shott CBE FREng, Academy project chair and Executive Chairman, Shott Trinova LLP and Arcinova, said:

“Engineering biology has the potential to solve many of the problems people and the planet face, now and tomorrow. Individuals, groups and communities working in engineering biology must get together at this important time and agree how they can build better connections and incentivise this collaboration to deliver more economic and societal impact.

“Innovation often happens across subject boundaries and engineering biology is a perfect example of this. It draws on genomics, data science and other disciplines, fuelled by major increases in computing power and growing capabilities of machine learning and AI, pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved.”

Click here to read the report


Notes for Editors

  1. Engineering Biology: a priority for growth

This study engaged with relevant stakeholders to understand the state of play in engineering biology in the UK and what is needed to accelerate its growth. It was informed by companies with relevance to engineering biology of various sizes and from different sectors. Evidence was gathered through literature review, interviews with 24 companies, a roundtable for SMEs and a workshop involving industry, academia and government.

Steering group:

  • Ian Shott CBE FREng (Chair), Executive Chairman, Shott Trinova LLP and Arcinova
  • Professor Lionel Clarke OBE, Co-chair of the UK Synthetic Biology Leadership Council (SBLC)
  • Professor Alicia El Haj FREng, Interdisciplinary Chair of Cell Engineering, University of Birmingham
  • Professor Richard Kitney OBE FREng FRSE, Professor of BioMedical Systems Engineering, Imperial College London
  • Professor Chris Lowe OBE FREng, Director Cambridge Academy for Therapeutics Science
  • Professor Alison Noble OBE FREng FRS, Technikos Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Associate Head of MPLS Division, Institute of Biomedical Engineering
  • Professor Nilay Shah FREng, Head of Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London
  1. Royal Academy of Engineering

As the UK’s national academy for engineering and technology, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers from academia and business – our Fellows – to advance and promote excellence in engineering for the benefit of society.

We harness their experience and expertise to provide independent advice to government, to deliver programmes that help exceptional engineering researchers and innovators realise their potential, to engage the public with engineering and to provide leadership for the profession. 

We have three strategic priorities:

  • Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation and businesses
  • Address the engineering skills and diversity challenge
  • Position engineering at the heart of society

We bring together engineers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, academics, educators and the public in pursuit of these goals.

Engineering is a global profession, so we work with partners across the world to advance engineering’s contribution to society on an international, as well as a national scale.

For more information please contact: Victoria Runcie at the Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. 0207 766 0620; email: victoria.runcie@raeng.org.uk