Cameron Owen had an idea for a synthetic biology application, and he pitched it to a handful of postdoctoral programs. When he received the feedback that he didn't have enough research experience, he decided to launch a startup based in San Diego around his idea. He figured that he'd either get the experience he needed to re-apply, or he'd create a viable company.
After three years of research and development, Owen's path seems to have taken him down the latter of those two options, and he moved his viable company, rBIO, to Houston — a twist he didn't see coming.
“Houston was not on my radar until about a year and a half ago,” Owen says, explaining that he thought of Houston as a leading health care hub, but the coasts still had an edge when it came to what he was doing. “San Diego and the Boston area are the two big biotech and life science hubs.”
But when he visited the Bayou City in December of 2021, he says he saw first hand that something new was happening.
“Companies from California like us and the coastal areas were converging here in Houston and creating this new type of bioeconomy,” he tells InnovationMap.
Owen moved to Houston last year, but rBIO still has an academic partner in Washington University in St. Louis and a clinical research organization it's working with too, so he admits rBIO's local footprint is relatively small — but not for long.
"When we look to want to get into manufacturing, we definitely want to build something here in Houston," he says. "We’re just not to that point as a company."
In terms of the stage rBIO is in now, Owen says the company is coming out of R&D and into clinical studies. He says rBIO has plans to fundraise and is meeting with potential partners that will help his company scale and build out a facility.
With the help of its CRO partner, rBIO has two ongoing clinical projects — with a third coming next month. Owen says right now rBIO is targeting the pharmaceutical industry’s biologics sector — these are drugs our bodies make naturally, like insulin. About 12 percent of the population in the United States has diabetes, which translates to almost 40 million people. The demand for insulin is high, and rBIO has a way to create it — and at 30 percent less cost.
This is just the tip of the iceberg — the world of synthetic biology application is endless.
“Now that we can design and manipulate biology in ways we’ve never been able to before,” Owen says, "we’re really only limited by our own imagination.”
Synthetic biology is a field of science that involves programing biology to create and redesign natural elements. While it sounds like science fiction, Owen compares it to any other type of technology.
“Biology really is a type of software,” he says. “Phones and computers at their core run on 1s and 0s. In biology, it’s kind of the same thing, but instead of two letters, it’s four — A, C, T, and G.”
“The cool thing about biology is the software builds the hardware,” he continues. “You put that code in there and the biology builds in and of itself.”
Owen says the industry of synthetic biology has been rising in popularity for years, but the technology has only recently caught up.
“We’re exploring a brave new world — there’s no doubt about that,” Owen says.