The CSB Biofoundry, a new resource launched by Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology, welcomed researchers and startups to its first Open House last week. The facility, located at 1801 Maple St. in Evanston, arms academic research laboratories and synthetic biology startups with state-of-the-art liquid-handling robotics, high-throughput screening systems, and biological characterization platforms to enable rapid and efficient experimentation and accelerate new discoveries.

“The Biofoundry vision is to transform the research that we can do in synthetic biology here at Northwestern,” says Biofoundry director Josh Leonard, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering.  “CSB has done a lot of groundwork, visiting and learning from other foundries around the world over the past 10 years, and with that insight we designed a facility that updates the Foundry concept and positions us to make the engineering of biology faster, more rigorous, and richer.”

The Biofoundry’s capabilities range from molecular biology and protein and particle analysis to cell-free expression systems and bioprocess engineering, allowing for comprehensive biological synthesis and characterization. Its pilot-scale production infrastructure bridges the gap between laboratory research and industrial application, facilitating the scalable manufacturing of bio-based products.

Representatives from startup companies Opera Biosciences, Stemloop, and Syenex, currently residing at the Biofoundry, were on hand to share their experiences.

“Accessibility and availability of equipment necessary to do life science synthetic biology work is the number one thing we’ve received from the Foundry,” says Khalid Alam, PhD, Founder and chief executive officer of Stemloop. “That equipment is really difficult and costly for a startup to purchase. Oftentimes, early in a startup, you need proof of concepting and to push the needle forward a tiny bit. The Foundry gives you access to essentially everything that one would need to be able to do that proof-of-concept work to accelerate the trajectory of their companies.”

Julie Ming Liang, PhD, chief science officer at Opera Biosciences echoed Alam’s appreciation for the Biofoundry’s resources.

“When we scale up, we need larger and more expensive equipment. All of these are hundreds of thousands, if not almost a million dollars in equipment, and that’s very difficult for an early-stage startup like ours,” says Liang. “It’s been very beneficial for us to able to do the necessary experiments to showcase the potential of our technology for our next step in fundraising when we don’t have the capital to buy that equipment now.”

The event included a facility and lab tour conducted by Foundry scientist Lauren Clark.

”The Biofoundry offers state of the art equipment including an Ambr250 parallel bioreactor, an Echo acoustic liquid handler, Opentrons Flex robots, an AKTA Avant25, a NanoAnalyzer from NanoFCM, and a Prometheus Panta from NanoTemper,” says Clark. “In addition, the lab space is equipped with basic lab equipment to host full projects. For example, starting from a glycerol stock, a visiting researcher could continue through cell growth, protein expression, purification, and final protein analysis and characterization, formulation, and freeze drying of a product.”

Leonard says that beyond the current CSB network of support, a big debt of gratitude is owed to colleagues including former CSB leaders Michael Jewett and Milan Mrksich, the Office of Research, the US Army, the State of Illinois, INVO and InQbation Lab leadership for putting together the mechanics and developing the foundational vision for the space.

“Over the past 15 months, the Center for Synthetic Biology has gathered input from our faculty and resident startups and formulated a plan for building transformative capabilities; the launch of the Biofoundry is a big step towards realizing and unlocking that potential for our amazing community.”

Feature image caption: Stemloop CEO Khalid Alam, PhD discusses how the SynBio Foundry has supported the company’s research in biosensors during the Foundry open house event hosted by the Center for Synthetic Biology and the Querrey InQbation Labs.

Main story image caption: Lauren Clark demonstrates the Amber250 parallel bioreactor system during the Biofoundry open house.

by Lisa La Vallee