Representative Reflections: After iGEM at Synbiobeta 2019!
Oct 10, 2019
SynBioBeta 2019 was an incredibly meaningful experience for both my professional associations as well as for raising more awareness about iGEM in the SynBio community. Prior to attending the conference, I created a person of interest list consisted of people who would be strategic in spreading awareness about the iGEM Competition and its global impact, as well as those relevant to my field of interest.
Day one of SynBioBeta began with Inscriptas talk about their technology and the launch of their new desktop digital genome editing device, Onyx. Aside from first-day excitement, I found this talk to be particularly interesting as it was the perfect example of a corporate pitch. This was of particular interest to me as a startup co-founder in the biotechnology space. The next event of particular interest to me was the panel with Lisa Porter and Jason Kelly. They discussed the future of SynBio and its implications on the rest of the world. Jason’s branding of SynBio as a teenager was particularly memorable. This talk brought to light the importance of incorporating safety into new SynBio applications.
During lunch, we were able to interview George Church to ask him why he believes iGEM is a meaningful experience for students in SynBio. His response was: “iGEM presents an alternative educational opportunity that regular Schools and institutions can't provide. It allows students to learn how to really develop and execute a biotech project.”
Talking to Church allowed me to pick his brain on the importance of accurate pH monitoring which is relevant to my startup. Through day one Yoshi and I were able to interview several people and a significant dent on my person of interest list. My personal favorite event of Day one was the fireside chat between Church and Shmidt. It brought to light what the giants in tech and SynBio believed was the future of their industries and the integration thereof. I was also able to meet high school students at the conference, which was both impressive and shocking, and this opened the opportunity for me to start a high school iGEM team in the Bay area. Post day one included a mixer at IndieBio. Here I was able to learn about IndiBio’s application process and what it offers to its participants. Information that is of particular use to iGEMs entrepreneurship initiative. During this time I was also able to interact with current Ph.D. students which gave me insight into applications and day to day research in SynBio.
Day two of SynBioBeta began with the talk by John Nicols (Codexis) & Michael Harrison (Tate & Lyle) on the marriage between small and large companies. This talk was an eye-opener for me to reevaluate how to find funding and raise a successful startup. Next, the talk by Adam Arkin on SynBio In space was inspiring. It was a great insight into how iGEM and SynBio projects can be used for futuristic projects. Yoshi and I were able to interview Austin Che from Gingko who gave us a positive and enthusiastic quote on iGEMs contribution to synthetic biology. The lightning talks were very informative and brought to light the various projects happening both in academia and industry. As someone looking to pursue a Ph.D. in Synthetic Biology, these talks were helpful to refine my areas of interest within synbio. At the iGEM booth, we were able to interact with a lot of past iGEMers and interested VCs. I particularly enjoyed the talk by Daphne Koller, dare I say that this was my favorite talk. She was able to communicate the intricacies of machine learning for use in disease modeling to a lay audience (me) with incredible efficiency. Her talk is a great model for how biotech pitches and even iGEM presentations should beframed. After day two, After iGEM held a mixer that brought in a significant crowd of iGEMers and iGEM supporters. Here I learned a lot about SynBio projects globally and also how iGEM teams are structured on various teams (helpful got my highschool iGEM team initiative).
Day three of SynBioBeta started with Drew Endy’s talk which I found to be engaging yet humorous. The next talk I attended was on Women leaders in Synthetic Biology, which had many powerful messages. I am a firm believer that Including workspace equality as a subtopic in iGEMs entrepreneurship course would positively impact future synbio startups and allow men and women of talent to hold leadership positions. Yoshi and I were able to live stream events at SynBioBeta to the iGEM community. We interviewed various attendees on their company's work, perception of SynBio, and experience at SynBioBeta. I think this is a wonderful way for those unable to attend the conference to interact with the conference attendees. However, I think next year's representative can/should carry out this bit in a pre-planned manner. Having access to a microphone or scheduled interviews may make the process smoother. Additionally reaching out to the AV staff at the conference would be very cool. Overall, SynBioBeta left me with a lot of food for thought. It has amplified my drive to innovate in the SynBio field and to get more involved with the iGEM community. I am both grateful and humbled by this opportunity, thank you after iGEM!
I am a 3-time iGEMer in the Washington team. I now advise for the Washington and SoundBio teams and am part of two After iGEM committees. I was privileged to be picked as an iGEM representative to SynBioBeta 2019.
These are the three main things I learned from the conference.
Synthetic Biology is a teenager.
Just like the Erdős number, there could very well be an "iGEM number."
Synthetic biology is truly interdisciplinary.
“Synthetic biology is now a teenager” - Jason Kelly, Gingko Bioworks
“It's rapidly developing, still kind of awkward, but ready to take on increasing responsibility.” - Lisa Porter, DoD
SynBioBeta was a continuing whirlwind of industry and organizational professionals from all over the world. Some of them were intimated involved in synthetic biology ventures, some of them were only tangentially connected. But all of them were excited for this nascent field. Synthetic biology excites people because it looks like where the semiconductor and computing industry was in the 80s and 90s. Some are convinced that it is even more exciting because synthetic biology -- and biotech as a whole -- can really leverage tech that was built from the 80s and 90s. SynBio is still awkward, like a teenager, but has the youthful vigor, energy, and passion that is fueling innovation and rapid progress.
"iGEM presents an alternative educational opportunity that schools and institutions can't usually provide. It allows students to learn how to really develop and execute a biotech project.” – George Church, Professor at Harvard University
The Erdős number describes the degrees of separation between late mathematician Paul Erdős and another person, as measured by publications. Starting from the first day, the amount of people that were involved, or knew someone that was involved, in iGEM was surprising. Achala, another iGEM representative who was part of 2018's UC Davis iGEM team, and I were busy constantly talking to people at our table. Some of the people we met included:
Prof. George Church, a PI in the very first iGEM Competition (2004!), was a keynote panelist at SynBioBeta.
Danielle Rose, 2017 participant, is now cofounder of SquidBio.
Dr. Khalid Alam, who advised the Northwestern team, is the CEO of Stemloop.
Anna Marie Wagner, 2008 participant, just started working for Ginkgo Bioworks that week!
… and many more!
Achala and I joked that we should start to develop an "iGEM number": how many degrees of separation do you have to an iGEM participant? It really testifies to the fact that iGEM has really shaped the field of SynBio in a strong way.
"I am certain that in 5 years, there will be a quantum jump due to the development of a digital platform to iteratively design biology." - Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO, Google
The “am-I-dreaming” event of the conference was the Keynote Fireside chat titled "Tech Meet Bio, Bio Meet Tech." Representing "Bio" was Professor George Church, long-time professor at Harvard and pioneer of the personal genomics and the synthetic biology fields. Representing "Tech" was Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google and ex-chairman of Alphabet Inc. I can’t emphasize how colossal these two figures are in their respective fields.
Prof. Church explained that biology has had the privilege of inheriting and learning lessons from tech. In turn, Eric Schmidt replied that biology can unlock limits that tech has faced, which makes him excited about biology. They chatted on what is required for breakthroughs: A strong university, a good startup culture, and a national that supports innovation. They both shared wisdom. Prof. Church explained that for biology, our "end product" is made already, and we must work backwards, in a way, to learn how it works. Eric Schmidt shared a startup advice: "almost all businesses fail because they can't answer the 5-year question: where will you be in 5 years?" The hour long session passed in a breeze, with both Achala and I glued to our seats, furiously trying to immortalize their words in our notes. Yes… We were star-struck.
Along with being part of iGEM, I am also a staff member of SoundBio Lab, Seattle's Community Lab. The experience at SynBioBeta confirmed for me that communities like iGEM (creating strong SynBio communities around the world) and DIYBio Community Labs (locally democratizing and expanding access to biotech) are a key part in this field of synthetic biology. We are in the midst of an exciting, growing, and interdisciplinary venture. I appreciate After iGEM for giving me the chance to develop connections with SynBio innovators around the world.