Modern engineering has moved on from the stage where hardware was always used for manufacturing, and computer software was necessary for programming. Today, we are close to being able to use purely biological approaches to produce drugs, food, clothing and even industrial goods. This discipline is called biological engineering, and progress has accelerated in the last ten years thanks to massive drops in the price of both DNA production and characterisation. However, the complexity of biology and the long time it takes to prototype proteins is still a major roadblock to progress.
Our company, Cell-Free Technology, is focused on reducing the time and costs associated with protein prototyping. Our technology removes the cellular processors from cells, which are responsible for reading and writing proteins and allow us to create functional gene circuits in a few hours. This takes a highly interdisciplinary team with skills including computer science, biochemistry, engineering and product design.
Since founding the company less than a year ago we have created our first product: Bixels, offering a DIY protein prototyping system that allows users to test and visualise proteins for less than €100. This, combined with $250K of funding from Sean O’Sullivan Ventures has allowed us to accelerate our plans, grow our team and expand our product offering.
Our latest product will be a more advanced protein prototyping tool, focused on meeting the needs of academic and industrial researchers. Biology can be complex. If you want to make a drug, antibody, biosensor or material there is a huge range of combinations and iterations of DNA circuits to test and trial, in order to find and optimize your solution. Using current cell culturing techniques, it can take years! With our tool, users will be able to supply us with a digital copy of their proposed DNA circuit, and then have multiple versions designed and prototyped within a few hours. This allows you to test out different sequences without having the need to actually grow bacteria, which is complicated, costly, and intensive.
By treating biology like an engineering discipline and using modularised parts to build more and more complex devices, we will be able to develop sensors and systems that can truly integrate into a person’s lifestyle. Our vision is to build accessible consumer products and applications which integrate biotechnology but are beyond medical. In the future, we hope to create wearables that incorporate biological circuitry and even intelligent materials, to bring biocomputers closer to our skin.
Helene Steiner is a designer with a passion for taking biotechnology out of the test-tube and into consumer products. After studying for a double masters in design and science from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, Helene went on to develop biologically active fabrics at MIT. Shortly after, she was snapped up by Microsoft Research. She worked on developing biologically interactive tools such as Florence, a world first example of using technology to communicate with plants. She is also a lecturer in Biological Materials at the Royal College of Art.