How artificial life spawned a billion-dollar industry | Reuters

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By Ben Hirschler
| LONDON

LONDON Scientists are getting closer to building life from scratch and technology pioneers are taking notice, with record sums moving into a field that could deliver novel drugs, materials, chemicals and even perfumes.

Despite ethical and safety concerns, investors are attracted by synthetic biology’s wide market potential and the plummeting cost of DNA synthesis, which is industrializing the writing of the genetic code that determines how organisms function.

While existing biotechnology is already used to make medicines like insulin and genetically modified crops, synthesizing whole genes or genomes gives an opportunity for far more extensive changes.

Matt Ocko, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist whose past investments include Facebook (FB.O), Uber [UBER.UL] and Zynga (ZNGA.O), believes the emerging industry has passed the “epiphany” moment needed to prove it can deliver economic value.

“Synthetic biology companies are now becoming more like the disruptive, industrial-scale value propositions that define any technology business,” he said.

“The things that sustain and accelerate this industry are today more effective, lower cost, more precise and more repeatable. That makes it easier to extract disruptive value.”

Ocko, whose Data Collective firm has invested in companies including organism design firm Gingko Bioworks and bioengineer Zymergen, is not alone.

Other tech veterans backing the new wave of “synbio” start-ups include Jerry Yang, Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel and Eric Schmidt, famous for their roles at Yahoo (YHOO.O), Netscape, PayPal and Google respectively.

UNCERTAINTIES REMAIN

Experts meeting in London this week said the science toolkit was improving fast and…

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