Synthace is a biotech start-up accelerating biological discovery and optimisation through computer-aided biology. CEO Guy Levy-Yurista tells Bioscience Today why this is the decade when life sciences’ biggest challenges will be solved – in a matter of days.

If you wanted to create the world’s best cappuccino, how would you start?

The usual scientific way would entail a taste test with five cups of coffee heated at different temperatures, and made with different amounts and types of coffee, sugar, milk etc. At every point in time, one parameter would be tested everything else is kept constant. That is the paradigm of science.

A better way is to try five different parameters of ingredients, temperature etc, across five different trails. That would mean 3,125 different cups of coffee to be prepared and tasted.

But there is a different way – Design of Experiments (or DOE), which allows you to smartly and automatically test a subset of this permutation to get the best solution.

Synthace has developed unique capabilities around DOE. Its cloud-based digital experiment platform, based in London and Boston, digitises the entire process end to end. With minimal training, scientists can design and plan experiments, simulate them in silico, schedule them on their automation equipment, and aggregate experimental data in one place.

Put simply, it means experiments are enabled that were previously thought impossible.

Synthace claims to give scientists a really powerful edge when it comes to finding the best disease treatment, the best drug, the best way to grow food, and so on.

Currently digitilisation of life science R&D is very fragmented, with experiment design using a range of platforms and scientific collaborations which are neither efficient nor cost-effective. Imagine then adding coding to the mix. There’s no need for coding with our operating platform, say the Synthace team… it’s as easy as dragging and dropping!

Guy tells us more:

How and why did Synthace originate?

We started out as CRO with our own lab in North London. Because our founding team spent a lot of time in the lab, they knew the pain of manual, repetitive tasks of biological experimentation and limitations of science when it’s done this way. Scientists spend most of their time doing tedious, boring, manual tasks, and little on science itself. More so, so much information from experiments is lost because it requires a scientist to record all this data manually. It is a huge burden on scientists and limits and slows down scientific progress.

We thought “what if we could alleviate some of that pain? What if we could represent all of this labwork with code, and lift a lot of this burden from scientists? How much would that free scientists to do breakthrough discoveries not thought possible before?”
Thus we’ve created an experiment platform that enables scientists to design and run more effective and insightful experiments, accelerating scientific progress, and increasing the lifetime value of laboratory operations.

What did the platform’s creation entail in terms of man hours, resources etc? What was the ‘Eureka’ moment?

I think most people think of ‘eureka’ as finding the right answer. For us, our biggest eureka was when we realised the correct question – it went deeper than just how to represent lab work with code. We started asking what it was that biologists actually needed to build a deeper understanding of biology. What would that look like?

Our platform today is the product of many years of difficult work by a group of amazing people. We are a life science SaaS company working on a deep tech problem to build a digital interface with laboratories, and that’s hard. It’s also why it’s so hard to put a number on it in terms of hours.

Digitalisation in life sciences is entering a golden era. What part has Synthace played in this transformative process?

I wouldn’t say we’re “entering” it. I’d say the golden age for life science digitalisation is already here…it’s just unevenly distributed. At Synthace, we are focused entirely on digitalisation of the experiment.

The reason we’re leading a digital transformation in labs all around the world is that we’re approaching the problem from first principles. Most are focused on improving the individual “point solutions” we find in labs—automation, ELNs, LIMS—but nobody else is bringing everything together the way we are.

Want to automate? You’ve got to use an automation tool. Want to write up your protocol? You’ve got to use an ELN. Want to bring all your data together? You’ll need a LIMS. They’re all separate, isolated islands.

What Synthace does, it brings it all together to run a better experiment. Better experiments lead to better discoveries. That’s the power of our experiment platform, that’s what nobody else can do.

How do you see your platform evolving? Any other innovations in the pipeline?

We’re constantly rolling out improvements. For example, we’ve recently made it possible for scientists to accelerate their manual pipetting, meaning the burden of calculating and planning pipetting volumes is completely gone for the scientists using it. This also includes the ability to switch between manual and automated execution with a single click, whenever they want.

One of our biggest innovations right now is built on top of that core DOE capability, and we’ve already seen it produce incredible results for our customers. It’s something we’re calling ‘High Dimensional Experimentation,’ or HDE. It’s a capability that combines automation-enabled DOE with high throughput liquid handling/dispensing. You won’t find this anywhere else—it’s not something we’ve seen anyone else get remotely close to. There’s one customer of ours who has used it to knock months off the critical path in their assay development for drug discovery, and that’s just the beginning. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars in value created, all while helping people get drugs into the market much faster.

What’s the biggest advance in your field that would have been considered totally impossible, say, five years ago.

I think the biggest advance in our field is actually a change in mindset and the realisation that those “point solutions” in the lab aren’t going to cut it anymore. This has worked for many for a long time, and I’m sure there’s more value to get out of it, but I think sticking to this old mindset is going to get riskier every day.

The new mindset is all about looking at things from the perspective of the experiment and asking how scientists can do better science. If you get a better ELN, all you get is a better ELN. That can definitely be helpful, but does it let you run better experiments, does it help you do better science? No, not even close.

We’re living in unparalleled times: does Synthace regard the current economic turmoil as an opportunity or obstacle for the company and its customers?

The current turmoil we’re seeing in the world — whether that’s the price of food, the effects of climate change, or the continuing knock-on effects of the pandemic — is a stark reminder of how important the life sciences are, and the impact it can have on our future. After all, these are all issues that are fundamentally about biology and our ability to understand and make use of it, whether that’s developing vaccines, growing hardier crops, or finding better ways to capture carbon and maybe even store energy.

I would hate to call this an opportunity, more as a necessity for us and our customers. A necessity to embrace technology and move away from the status quo of doing science as we’ve done it.

Synthace is classed as a Great Place to Work, particularly for women. How has this shaped the company’s success?

I wouldn’t say that it’s shaped our success, I’d say it’s one of the main reasons for our success. The old adage is true: culture eats strategy for breakfast. If you’ve got a bad culture, neither the very best talent nor an unlimited budget will save you from failure. A strong culture is the key to solving difficult problems and making progress.

I think the difference at Synthace is that we believe a company is not the sum of the roles it has, but the people that we go to work with. We all have complex lives outside of our work life: children to take care of, ageing parents to worry about, house moves to organise, diagnoses to understand, interests to explore, dreams to strive for—the detailed reality of life in total. When our people come to work, they bring all of themselves, and so we must celebrate all of them, their authenticity, their uniqueness.

This means we very deliberately make decisions about diversity, maternity, salaries, vacation, remote working, and everything else to do right by the individual—not some wrongheaded idea of “what a company should do.”

How will life sciences look in the future?

The short answer is it will be unrecognisable. The longer answer is more difficult and depends entirely on how big we’re willing to dream. I think, at the very least, we’ll see dramatically improved AI models for biology, informing exceptionally powerful and well-designed experimentation in the lab.

There won’t just be a lab-to-human loop, it will become a lab-to-digital-to-human loop. Every aspect of what is done in biological R&D will be linked to the digital world, with every experiment run in vastly more sophisticated laboratory environments, and aided by digital tools. Tools that, crucially, draw a line through the entire process and build a robust digital interface with the reality of lab work.

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