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Forest City SynBio's mission to turn London, Ontario into a global hub for synthetic biology

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

Samir Hamadache, Forest City SynBio’s co-founder and CEO, had been preparing for his lucky moment for years. It was the night before the 2018 Genome Project-write (GP-write) Conference in Montreal when Samir had a eureka moment; to create a start-up accelerator similar to Y Combinator, but for synthetic biology-based companies in Canada. He recognized the incredible opportunity to pitch his idea to a knowledgeable audience of decision-makers. On his ten-hour bus ride to the conference, Samir crafted his presentation.

As luck would have it, a conference speaker was running late. Samir, never one to miss an opportunity, raised his hand and asked if he could pitch an idea to the audience. Despite the boldness of the idea, Samir’s pitch was met with great reception. The audience agreed that Canada, in particular, had many ambitious entrepreneurs who were missing a hub to propel their ideas to market. Prominent leaders in the audience such as Kevin Chen, Hyasynth Bio, and Andrew Hessel, GP-write Chairman, became some of Samir’s first advisors. And with that, what would become Forest City SynBio, was born.

Although the idea for a synbio accelerator was thought of and solidified within a 48-hour period, the venture was years in the making for Samir. In 2014, Samir began his undergraduate degree in genetics and biochemistry at Western University. After stumbling across synthetic biology (synbio) in his first-year biology class, Samir had been hooked on the idea, and the potential, of manipulating and designing life. With the help of Professor Bogumil Karas, "he spearheaded a campaign, alongside faculty and other students, [to] successfully advocate for the creation of an undergraduate module in synthetic biology at Western University" (SynBio Canada, 2020), making the school one of the first to offer the program in the country. Shortly after, Samir went on to be a member of the founding executive team of SynBio Canada, with Dr. Benjamin Scott, to establish a network for the growing industry in Canada.

Samir always had a keen interest in entrepreneurship. Throughout his undergraduate career he pursued several ventures, the most notable being a blockchain-based platform for academic publishing, with the aim of providing scientists with the opportunity to get more value from their research publications. He had the opportunity to pitch the idea to Y Combinator, though was unsuccessful in securing an investment. This failed pitch attempt was fresh in his mind when he had the idea to build his own Y Combinator.

After Samir’s pitch at GP-write received a positive reception, it was time for the real work to begin. Several factors influence how or where farmers run their agricultural businesses; many farmers know that some places are better for growing things than others. The same is true of innovation, and London, ON has been fertile ground for decades. London leverages economic strengths within food, beverage and agriculture, synbio opportunities through local academic institutions including, Western University and Fanshawe College, and a movement to support the burgeoning innovation economy.

“I basically just put the pieces together that were already there”, said Samir.

After Samir’s pitch at GP-write received a positive reception, it was time for the real work to begin. After securing support from institutional stakeholders, Samir formed the London SynBio Economic Working Group. The group was composed of local and national organizations that represented economic and scientific development. This group of people were instrumental in driving momentum behind Samir’s idea, but they also happened to be very busy. This led Samir to take matters into his own hands and created a volunteer group, largely comprising students and recent graduates from science and business programs, to help him develop the project. The volunteers worked on organizing networking events, building connections with local businesses and synbio start-up founders, and creating a new brand for the initiative: Forest City SynBio (FCSB).

For Shea Tough, the eventual co-founder and COO of FCSB, the formation of the volunteer collective couldn’t have been better timing. Shea’s first entrepreneurial pursuit came from her work on the early development of a DNA machine-learning technology. Her experience founding and managing multiple social initiatives, left Shea well-prepared to take on a new pursuit, this time in the field of synthetic biology.

At the beginning of her post-secondary career, Shea was set out to become a doctor and accepted to University of Ottawa and Western University's medical doctorate programs. However, by the time of her acceptance, Shea’s mindset had already shifted from pursuing medicine to creating impact through entrepreneurship in biotech, leading to her to decline both offers.

Shea was first captivated by the potential of synbio when she went to sell her second-year genetics textbook. Within the four months that she had taken the course, the material had already become outdated. Stunned by the rate of change in the field, Shea researched the growing number of applications and realized that this evolving field allowed scientists to take all the foundational aspects of biology and redesign it, as if from scratch. With her overarching goal of creating sustainable impact through her work, synthetic biology unlocked a new passion for Shea.

“When Shea started taking FCSB calls on her corporate lunch breaks, staying up until 3am with me working on the pitch, it was clear that she was as committed and passionate about the project as I was,” says Samir of his co-founder during the early days of the volunteer collective. “Shea’s a natural leader and her strengths complement mine perfectly...our working relationship evolved really organically.”

The co-founders originally met in 2019, during their time on Western University's iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team. Shea and Samir were part of the founding team that pushed to secure a spot at the international competition for the university. It was at this competition that Shea was sold on the idea of supporting synbio startups, before Samir had even approached her to create FCSB in London. Shea recalls being inspired by the many innovations of other iGEM teams that presented at the Giant Jamboree in Boston.

“I looked at all these ideas [at the competition] and thought, if even 1% of these ideas succeed, the world would be a totally different place. My goal became to do what I could to help as many of these innovations succeed as possible.”

As FCSB began to gain traction, the founders realized they would need to move beyond a volunteer basis in order to turn the idea into a reality. In January 2021, Samir put his graduate degree on hold and Shea left both of her pharmaceutical consulting jobs to focus on FCSB full-time. Being able to devote all of their time and energy to develop the business allowed the founders, along with their group of volunteers turned employees, to advance development. Shea and Samir secured a partnership and contract with Western Fair Association (WFA) and their new agriculture-food tech business incubator, The Grove. “With agriculture and food being the fastest growing vertical in the synbio industry [see Impossible Foods and Pivot Bio], and London’s strengths in these areas, the partnership with The Grove was a no-brainer,” says Samir. FCSB’s accelerator space is now in development with plans to open the space to their first cohort of startups in early 2022.

“Every day it feels like we hit a new company milestone. We are in the process of closing our first round of fundraising and we have about twenty companies lined up to apply to our facility,” says Shea. FCSB will act as an accelerator and incubator, investing in and providing a full suite of resources to startups accepted into the program. The business is giving everyone a chance to get in on the investment opportunity. FCSB is currently holding a crowdfunding round that allows anyone, with as little as a $100 investment, to own a portion of the company.

“Democratizing the investment opportunity is really important to us. We believe that this technology is humanity’s intellectual feat achieved over several centuries, and it just makes sense to share the profits it creates as widely as possible.”

After more than a year of morning-to-night zoom calls and business planning, Shea and Samir are realizing their dream of accelerating Canada’s bioeconomy. “Synbio gives us the tools we desperately need to be able to address the challenges that are most pressing, particularly climate change,” says Samir. Forest City SynBio is on its way to developing the companies that will bring these technologies to market; companies that will foster sustainability with their innovations and improve the way we live on Earth and beyond.

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