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Synthetic Futures

The synthetic biology sector is starting to gain steam, as humankind gets closer to achieving its long-held ambitions to hack into the natural world and make it work for us, and more investors start to arrive on the scene, according to Entrepreneur.

Developments in recent years have made it more likely that companies can use synthetic biology tools to produce new products like materials, biofuels, flavors, drugs, and fragrances, among others, Britt Wray writes.

What are these developments that are luring investors to back entrepreneurs who say they can cobble together new forms of organisms from different molecular parts?

First off, the bioeconomy has been on the upswing for a long time. The US domestic product from genetically modified organisms in 2013 was $350 billion, up $50 billion from 2010. And the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars says the number of synthetic biology companies tripled between 2009 and 2013.

"Although synthetic biology is still in the very early experimental phase, it could become the defining technology of the 21st century," adds Fidelity Investments fixed-income analyst Rob Chan, "bringing with it radical new thinking, new questions and new opportunities, because nothing has the power to change how we live more than changing life itself."

That's grand talk for an investment analyst. What other signs are there that synbio is heating up?

The swift plunge of the cost of DNA sequencing, for one thing, will be an enabling factor for synbio companies.

There also is more support out there from both public and private sources, from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK government, which is staking a big investment in a multi-pronged plan to become a global top dog in synbio R&D and startups.

A growing DIY community is tinkering with synthetic biology tools as well. These biohackers are adding a creative spark to the field, and are reminiscent of the early days of electrical and chemical engineering, when new methods and tools that would change the world were tested out in small labs and garages, Wray adds.

Bill Liao, an investment partner at SOS Ventures who has been investing in new synbio startups and has created the Synbio Axlr8r program, says the field is opening up.

"It has become clear that biological technology is going to have its best shot at forward progress by adopting the same protocols of open standardization and the sharing of information and proven computer code," he says.