Karl Schmieder M.S./M.F.A.

Organism Design. Minecraft Chemistry | Three by Five by Eleven.5

Photo by Heather Schwartz on Unsplash

Organism or microbe design is an emerging industry.

It’s analogous to the semi-conductor industry. Companies design and manufacture the semi-conductors found in computers, phones, cars, and televisions.

Today, end-users rarely make semi-conductors themselves. They hire the expertise and apply what is manufactured to create a product.

Organism design companies are reprograming yeast and bacteria to produce useful molecules. Those molecules are used in consumer goods, foods, medicines and industrial products.

Perhaps the best known organism company is Boston’s Ginkgo Bioworks. Sarah Zhang profiled the company this week in an article I enjoyed in The Atlantic. (We featured co-founder Jason Kelly and creative director Christina Agapakis in What’s Your Bio Strategy?)

Minecraft Chemistry. A couple of week’s ago, Microsoft added a Chemistry Set to the popular game. Since there are about 55 million people worldwide playing (and some 122 million games sold) that’s a lot of potential exposure to chemistry. What about a synthetic biology expansion kit?

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Why You Need a Bio Strategy

Three by Five by Eleven.1

Posted in 3x5, biotechnology, book notes, Influences, interviews, Observations, Science Fiction, Writing by Karl S. on January 19, 2018

I’m starting a new weekly feature. Not to clutter your life –  you can opt out if you’d like – but to document and share the things that influence me during a week.

To keep myself focused and brief, I promise to only share what fits on one side of a 3×5 filecard.

Why?

The file card. The notecard. A small piece of lined paper. Blank white, or colored.

Three inches by five inches. They’re typically printed with eleven lines.

Highly useful. I consider them an essential tool for a writer.

Easy enough to carry anywhere, they’re old school. Like a pencil.  They can be anti-technology. Turn off your phone, your computer, and focus your effort on the little card in front of you.

I usually carry around a stack but if I’m pressed for time or room, I’ll fold a couple, put them in my pocket, grab a pencil or pen.

Here’s this week’s file card:

Christopher Payne takes pictures of General Pencil, in New Jersey.

Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories – A New York Times Magazine photo essay on General Pencil Company. “Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion.”

Genemapper – This near-future novel follows a “leaf and flower color” designer as he solves the mysterious collapse of a crop he designed. Full of ideas, especially around from-scratch genetic design.

The Chaco Quarterly because “one must distinguish between Information, knowledge, and wisdom.” Wisdom distilled into 90 seconds because there’s not enough wisdom in the world.

That wraps this first issue. What do you think?

 

2017: A Year Wraps and Good Riddance

Good Riddance 2017

It was a good year, but not without its challenges.

The TL;DR is:

  • mL grew more than 10 percent but is still down from its 2015 high.
  • I co-authored and published What’s Your Bio Strategy?
  • I moderated a panel at SynBioBeta SF17 and keynoted at Biofabricate 4 and enjoyed it.
  • I now live with myaesthenia gravis.
  • I started a novel that’s been in my head for more than ten years.
  • I took time off to travel from Boston to Montreal on a family cruise. I also spent some quality time in the Adirondacks.

My three words were bold, creative, authority and I kept those in mind all year long.

Macro Events

New York City and my microcosm in Brooklyn was depressed after the 2016 election. (For God’s sake, there was a planned victory party – at the intersection of President and Clinton streets just a few blocks from I live.)

The sense of the unknown and dread filled the air. I mean you could, you really could, feel it. And I don’t say that lightly.

I counseled friends to focus on ONE issue. I suggested focusing on what you could control. I knew trying to make sense of everything would be overwhelming. That’s proved true.

I promised myself I’d focus on science and education. I emailed and called my senators and representatives when a science or education issue came up.

As the year progressed, my focus became local.  I started participating in fights against charter schools. I started calling representatives, at the local and state level on sad state of the New York City subways. This was me being bold.

As we enter 2018, I’d like to do a better job helping those who are less fortunate. Especially, those who don’t understand or speak the language, nor how the system works. As a communicator, that is one of my most important jobs.

Karl’s Life Personal

2017 was a weird year.

One morning in April, I woke up seeing double. I went to the emergency room and spent a day and night undergoing a battery of tests.

I thought I had a brain tumor. I thought I had suffered a stroke. Luckily, those diagnoses were ruled out quickly.

36-hours into my visit, the neurologist arrived and said, “I’m getting you out of here. It seems like you have myaesthenia gravis.”

I wore an eye patch for nearly two months and learned that in New York City, no one looks at you twice with an eye patch. I also learned a lot of people have suffered worse – from migraine’s to Bell’s Palsy, cancer and strokes.

Uneven eyes is a symptom of myaesthenia gravis. And man do I look crazy.

It took another month to get the final diagnosis: Myaesthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease.

An excellent neuro-opthalmologist treated me with steroids. After two months, my vision was back to normal.

In retrospect, it feels like it was stress induced (though my doctor wouldn’t agree). I hadn’t been taking care of myself. I was doubting my business. I was overwhelmed by a book I was writing. Two of boys were making major transitions. I thought I was ready. Maybe I wasn’t.

I’m better now and appreciate the importance of good health.

Once the illness ordeal ended, late in June, both Alejandro and Felix graduated. Alejandro graduated from Bard High School Early College. He had been accepted to Cornell and would be going in the fall. Felix graduated from fifth grade and joined his brother, Tomás, at the excellent Math and Science Exploratory (middle) school.

My parents traveled from California, attended the graduations, then we drove to Boston. There, we joined my sister, and her two kids. We boarded the Maasdaam and took a week long cruise along the east coast down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal.

Dinner Time on the Maasdaam

I had never cruised before but it turned out to be a lot of fun. The best thing was the mornings: I’d get up and take a table at one of the restaurants, write in my journal and drink coffee as the ship woke up. Eventually, my father would join me to read the paper. Then little by little our family would arrive.

The only downside was the food. It was excellent but I learned that I had little self-control and by the end of the fifth day, I had chronic heartburn. I’m sure that was due to the over eating.

Karl’s Life messagingLAB

messagingLAB started the year with a two big projects that abruptly came to an end in March. I wasn’t prepared and had to scramble.

Those projects were interesting, pushed me to use digital marketing skills that I hadn’t used in years, as well as coming up with creative marketing solutions for my clients.

Later in the year, two projects required me to draw upon public relations skills that I also hadn’t used in years. One of those projects resulted in some pretty spectacular media placements.

I lost one piece of business because the project ended (we’re still friendly and looking for ways to work together); one piece ended because they ran out of money (we had a great relationship); and one piece of business I lost because the add-on was deemed very expensive.

I lost three proposals because messagingLAB was too expensive. I didn’t like that but took those losses as lessons to work harder to explain the value in hiring me.

I also celebrated five years of working with one client. That was a significant milestone and says a lot about the relationship we have.

I took a bold financial risk# in the middle of the year that didn’t pay off and ended the year at a loss. I’ve been in the hole before and it’s no fun, so I’m taking aggressive steps to move on. (#No, it wasn’t Bitcoin, though I believe an online currency is an inevitability.)

I decided to examine messagingLAB’s offerings. I added media relations and am making it a policy to start all projects with a roadmapping session. I’m also creating a training company to help people understand the opportunities presented by biotechnology.

What’s Your Bio Strategy?

In November, John Cumbers and I published What’s Your Bio Strategy? We interviewed 25 trailblazing academics, entrepeneurs and thought leaders.

It was an incredible experience. And it helped cement me as an author and authority.

I started my career writing music reviews. My first published (and paid!) articles were interviews. I’ve written dozens over the years. The group interviewed for WYBS were among the best.

John invited me to moderate a session at SynBioBeta on Strategy. A month later, I gave a keynote at Biofabricate.

You need a bio strategy.

I’ll admit that in both cases, I was very nervous – it’s been many years since I took the stage – so I practiced. And practiced. And practiced. For SynBioBeta, I spoke to all the people on the panel before we got on stage.

For Biofabricate, I rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. That way, when I got on stage, the presentation was automatic. 

Both were well received.

In December, I taught a bio strategy class to a non-technical audience. They enjoyed it. I also appeared on the FutureTech podcast.

So, I plan to do speaking and teaching in 2018.

The Dragon Burns

When the boys were very young, I would wake up with them, help them go back to sleep. Usually, I couldn’t fall back asleep. So, I picked up the bad habit of surfing infomercials.

Why?

Because infomercials among the most sophisticated marketing stories you can study.

At the time, Alejandro had already started to read chapter books. And like most boys in second, third, fourth grade, he read a lot of books about dragons.

Tomás would continue this and to this day, at age 13, he reads fantasy novels over other genres.

(He also plays Magic the Gathering, which includes a whole story line (Tarkhir) about dragon lords and how all the dragons are extinct. But one guy goes back in time to makes peace among the clans and revive the dragons.)

One night, I had this idea that it would be great to order a dragon from an infomercial.

The idea stuck and I ended up working the idea into a screenplay with a friend. We worked on it for more than a year.

We got busy and dropped the project. But the story never left me. It’s been brewing for five years. During that time, I’ve gotten a lot smarter about what we can create with biology.

I started writing the novel in September and joined a writers group. I workshopped the first 30 pages and got a positive response.

I’m going to continue the book and will tap into my community to get the science right.

It feels like a big book. It’s about applying creativity in new ways.

And now that I’m a bit more than half way through the draft I’m wondering where I’m going to go with it. I’ve written novels and screenplays in the past and wrote them for the enjoyment of it.

That’s how the book feels right now. So, I’m just enjoying the process.

I have no idea what 2018 will hold but I’m excited to define my three words, focus on growing messagingLAB, enjoying the writing, and my family.

2017 started with a sense of dread. 2018 looks to be very exciting.

 

My Futuretech Podcast Appearance

First Drafts: The Ugly, The Bad and The Good

Posted in biotechnology, interviews, synthetic biology, What's Your Bio Strategy?, Writing by Karl S. on July 13, 2017

Writing first drafts sucks.

For the past few months, I’ve been co-writing What’s Your Bio Strategy? with SynBioBeta founder John CumbersWe just completed the first draft. It feels monumental.

The process of writing a first draft is an epic like Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – one of my all-time favorite movies.

The Ugly

In the movie, Eli Wallach plays Tuco. A vicious criminal who will double-cross his partners at the drop of a hat. He’s eager for revenge and enjoys mocking and insulting his adversaries. He represents “The Ugly.”

Tuco made famous the phrase,

“There are two kinds of people in this world.”

And there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who have ideas for books and those who write the books.

Writing that first draft is Ugly.

John and I spent six months outlining What’s Your Bio Strategy? We formulated questions. We drafted lists of people to interview. We discussed and argued over business strategy books, articles, and methods. We got feedback from agents and publishers, friends and colleagues.

Once we started the interviews and the writing, I had a lot of doubts. There’s a little voice that loves to say, “Why are you writing this? It’s not very good.” I can usually avoid this with my business writing by delivering outlines, getting feedback, and keeping my clients involved in the process.

Eventually, I gave that voice to an ex-boss. Every time he appeared, I would say “Shut up. I’m writing the book and you’re not.” 

Also Ugly: I had a very unexpected health issue. I woke up one morning with double vision. I went to the emergency department, spent a night in the hospital. I underwent months of tests. The diagnosis? The auto-immune disease myasthenia gravis. I had to wear an eye patch for two months and am still on medication. 

The Bad 

In the movie, Lee Van Cleef plays “Angel Eyes” a ruthless, cold-blooded, sadistic psychopath. He takes pleasure in carrying out assasinations and “always gets the job done.”

Writing takes up all your time.

For us, the Bad took the form of schedules and travel. John and I were always on the road. In fact, John circled the globe during the writing. He traveled to Borneo, Germany, Denmark, London, San Diego and Singapore. My own travels to Basel, Boston, Los Angeles and Montreal look feeble compared to John’s. Without Skype and GoogleDocs, there would be no first draft.

That travel had an impact on interviews – we couldn’t schedule everyone. It required massive coordination. We couldn’t have done it without SynBioBeta’s Kristin Sorrentino, Claire Besino, and Marianna Limas.

Plus, both us of run our own business. For me that means business development and execution – often writing for clients. John joined the venture fund DCVC and launched a seed fund – that required a significant time commitment.

We both have families. During the writing, my son Alejandro went through the college application process, was accepted to Cornell, and graduated high school. My youngest graduated fifth grade.

I am a disciplined writer but to make word counts and deadlines, I got in the habit of waking at 4:30. Every time one of us missed a deadline, the other would call or send an email or text.

In the end, we got the job done and didn’t have to resort to being cold-blooded, sadistic psychopaths. There were a few times that we both had to be driven and ruthless.

The Good

In the movie, Clint Eastwood plays “Blondie, The Man With No Name.” He had made this character famous in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.

He is calm, calculating, merciless, and keeps his eye on the prize – a coffin full of gold.

The time we invested in our outline and the book planning paid off. It made a huge difference. It made it easier to stay focused.

As the first draft started to come together, we made significant changes to the structure and flow. Those made the draft stronger. Without the planning, the book would’ve been a bowl of (western) spaghetti.

The people we interviewed were the Good. Every time we would end an interview, we would call each other to high-five virtually. We now share deeper insights into the field of synthetic biology and are happy to share them with you.

Having a co-writer was excellent. Writing is lonely business. It can be isolating. Having someone to speak with, someone to crack the whip on deadlines, accelerated the writing. Plus, we came up with a novel idea that we think is going to be big – Biology as a Service – and James Hallihan of Cambridge Consultants spoke to us about the concept of the Chief Biology Officer.

Finally, the best of the Good is completing the epic first draft. By time you read this, we’ll probably be on the twelfth or twentieth draft. But there is nothing more satisfying than sharing a drink – even if it’s via Skype – when you finally know the first draft is finished.