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

What is Strategy?

Posted in by Karl S. on October 18, 2016

Comments Off on What is Strategy?


Posted in by Karl S. on August 9, 2016

Comments Off on Networking

INTERVIEW: SynBioBeta’s John Cumbers

Posted in by Karl S. on April 8, 2016


Here’s John Cumbers, founder of SynBioBeta.

In this interview, John reveals SynBioBeta’s origin story, the challenges he faced in starting the company what big companies don’t understand about start-up synthetic biology companies. It’s an excellent read. Enjoy.

Stories about synthetic biology make news every day. Called “the next stage of genetic engineering,” synthetic biology brings to market tools and products predicted to reach approximately $16 billion in sales within the next two years.

To better understand the people and companies active in this marketplace, I interviewed John Cumbers, founder of SynBioBeta, a company that supports a conference series, online community, newsletter, education, and research for the community of entrepreneurs, investors, and policymakers who are defining the field.

John and his team have held conferences in Boston, London, San Francisco, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Malaysia, and Singapore; this year he will take the SynBioBeta community to three Chinese cities — Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. During our phone interview, I asked John about his company, experience, and industry perspectives.

How did SynBioBeta originate?

CUMBERS: I started my first synthetic biology company, Universal BioMining, around the idea of improving mining with biology. That startup failed, so I went to work at NASA while I started an incubator, the Synthetic Biology Launchpad.

There, I interviewed emerging synbio companies and even funded a few. I learned there were a lot of small companies with interesting ideas, but there was no ecosystem to support them. That was the inspiration for SynBioBeta.

I named it SynBioBeta because of synthetic biology and “beta” because of beta testing — a play on the fact that we’re in beta testing. I worked on it one day a week while I was at NASA.

For SynBioBeta, I interviewed new companies that were seeking funding, introduced the science to venture capital firms around Silicon Valley, then educated the technology companies about this exciting, emerging technology. Eventually, I realized it was time to bring the companies and the investors together for an event, which took place in Menlo Park in November 2012. Shortly after that, we were invited to the UK to hold an event, bringing together members of the community. We call those brief events “Activate” and have held them in Singapore, Boston, and a number of other cities.

Very quickly, SynBioBeta became a full-time job. I left NASA last year, and I am doing everything I can to keep SynBioBeta growing by listening to entrepreneurs, finding creative solutions in media, and partnering events.

What challenges did you face in starting — and now running — the company?

CUMBERS: My biggest challenge in starting SynBioBeta was having the courage to do it. My biggest fear was that no one would come to the party (the first SynBioBeta conference). That’s only happened to me once before; I think it was my 13th birthday party. It’s an experience I never want to repeat. Luckily, it didn’t happen with the first conference, and we’ve grown ever since.

My biggest challenge, now, is learning how to manage other people. My previous careers in academia and government didn’t provide training in management. The other big challenge is going from being an idea generator to creative manager. It’s fun to create new event ideas, but, as a company, we must always execute.

In general, big companies underestimate the passion of young entrepreneurs and the impact they will have on the world.

To date, what has been the biggest lesson?

CUMBERS: You have to move from thinking about it to doing it. You have to be willing to drop your 9-to-5 job as quickly as you can and become your own company. Then, you have to learn to manage people, run your company, and control your own destiny.

We have a culture where education is all about getting a job — but that’s not the reality of Silicon Valley or our economy. Silicon Valley teaches you that taking risks is not a big deal — but explaining to your spouse or family that you’re going to do something that could fail is a big deal. That’s why you need a supportive environment.

When my first startup failed, my immediate reaction was, “I’m going to start another company.” That was probably a bad idea, but I was lucky enough to go back to NASA while I started SynBioBeta on the side. If I hadn’t had the NASA job, I would have had to either scramble to find another job or join another startup.

My advice to startup founders is to build a nest egg, a safety net. It’s critical to have six months to a year of savings so you can focus on the business instead of scrambling for money.

We’ve both been around many emerging companies, what do you think early-stage synthetic biology companies fail to do in their communications?

CUMBERS: Many synthetic biology companies come from the mission of making biology easier to engineer.

The biggest communication failures come from an inability to straddle the worlds of engineering and public perception.

Companies need to understand they have to communicate to two separate constituents — their customers and their own internal audiences. Even though end-users don’t necessarily care about the company and its culture, communicating those values clearly is essential to building a successful company because you also must communicate with investors, scientists, and engineers.

At the same time, you have to help the public — whether this public is consumers or other businesses — understand the benefits of your company. So, it comes down to having two communication streams — one for your company and one for your customers.

What do you think established companies — both in the biopharmaceutical space and outside it — do not understand about synthetic biology?

CUMBERS: In general, big companies underestimate the passion of young entrepreneurs and the impact they will have on the world. The dynamic that has played out repeatedly in the technology world will also play out in biotechnology, and the impacts of synthetic biology will touch most of our lives.

Big companies also don’t understand how the attitudes of young people toward genetic engineering are changing. I’ll be the first to admit I may not totally understand those changes, either, but I do see shifts in terms of understanding and adoption.

You’re taking SynBioBeta to China this year. Why? What has been the reception from the Chinese synthetic biology community?

With almost a quarter of the world’s population, China is a growing economic powerhouse. China’s recent strategic investments in the area of synthetic biology makes it an important place for SynBioBeta. In June, we’re running an event that spans Beijing, the political capital; Shanghai, the financial capital; and Shenzhen, the manufacturing capital of China.

Big companies also don’t understand how the attitudes of young people toward genetic engineering are changing.

What are your interests outside work?

CUMBERS: My passions are traveling and language. I speak fairly good Spanish and pretty good Chinese, but I am constantly learning new languages, and I can say a few sentences in many. Whenever I get an excuse to go to an exotic place, I go. I was in Lisbon last year, and I was just invited to Laos, where I’ll go for a conference later this year. I’m very excited about that.

Comments Off on INTERVIEW: SynBioBeta’s John Cumbers

INTERVIEW: Science Writing Radio’s David Shifrin

Posted in by Karl S. on March 10, 2016

Science Writing Radio

Only three percent of marketers say they use podcasts as a content marketing tactic, according to the Content Marketing Institute’s Sarah Mitchell.

Among life sciences marketers, the number of podcasts aimed at patients or physicians could probably be counted on both hands. Industry publications such as FierceBiotech, Pharmaceutical Executive and PharmaIQ have embraced the medium as a way of communicating with life sciences professionals but so far no pharmaceutical company that I know of is podcasting.

To learn more about the challenges associated with creating a successful life science-focused podcast, I interviewed David Shifrin, Ph.D., a Nashville-based science communications consultant and host of Science Writing Radio. David started his podcast in 2015 with the mission of helping young scientists improve their  communications, writing and scientific careers. Among others, he’s interviewed Ryan Bethancourt, founder of the biotech accelerator IndieBio, science writers John Fleischmann, Allison McCook, and Bill Snyder, and a number of scientists. I sat down with David to discuss his podcast and lessons learned from nearly 30 episodes.

Why did you start Science Writing Radio?
SHIFRIN: In graduate school, I was lucky enough to work with a principal investigator who was a great communicator. At conferences I attended I saw that many scientists were challenged in their storytelling. This is probably because as scientists, we are trained to focus on facts. But facts tend to be boring if they are not part of a bigger story. I also noticed that scientists weren’t really trained to communicate to the outside world, to a bigger audience, though this seems to be changing.

Academic jobs are scarce so scientists have to be prepared to enter the private sector. You can’t do that if don’t know how to communicate. I started the podcast as a way of giving back to my community.

What was your biggest challenge in starting the podcast? There were two actually. The first was finding the niche and figuring out what listeners would be interested in. The second was pushing through what Seth Godin calls “the dip,” a setback you can usually overcome with persistence. The idea is that things always start off well and everyone is excited. Inevitably, momentum slows and you have to decide whether that’s because your idea is bad or because you’re in “the dip.” It’s often the latter, so the best thing is to ignore the numbers and keep going.

Every podcaster I’ve spoken with has experienced this situation. We see our download numbers drop after the first few weeks, bottom out for anywhere from weeks to months, then – assuming our product isn’t terrible and we’re making something that informs and entertains – it starts to rise and grow way beyond where it started. Even at 30 episodes I’m still probably in the dip, but it’s worth it when I see that the podcast has been heard in 77 countries to date.

What has been your biggest lesson so far?
SHIFRIN: Focus and simplicity. The rule of one. The fact that you can only focus on one thing, and that every piece of content can only have one focus. So as much as possible, I try to keep each interview focused on one topic, keep each podcast focused on one subject that my audience is interested in.

I’ve also learned – and here I’m breaking the rule of one by giving two lessons – it’s important to experiment, especially with the format. I’ve created a number of episodes that were monologues – for example at the end of 2015 when I spoke about books that influenced me or my recent podcast on elevator pitches. The feedback from my listeners has been positive, so I’ll continue experimenting with formats.

As you near your 30th episode, what has been your biggest surprise?
SHIFRIN: The importance of having something outside of your day job. Most people feel guilty about this but again, going back to grad school, I was lucky to have a PI that not only had outside interests but he encouraged us to have those. So, the podcast is one of the interests I have outside my job. I am also a serious runner and cyclist.

Life sciences companies haven’t embraced podcasting, do you think they should?
SHIFRIN: Podcasting has been around for almost a decade but still is really in its infancy as a medium. It’s powerful because it’s one of the few forms of content where a person is in your head. Podcasting has experienced huge growth in the past few years but there will continue to be great opportunities for companies to use the medium creatively — especially when it comes to business-generated content. Very few companies are doing any sort of content marketing that includes audio, so it’s a massive opportunity.

Comments Off on INTERVIEW: Science Writing Radio’s David Shifrin

Mobile-First Mindset

Posted in by Karl S. on February 19, 2016
Peter Lurie and Mark Birch

Peter Lurie and Mark Birch

An application that allows users to have a business and a personal number on one device.

It’s surprising, really. That the common problem of enterprise sales people and freelancers who juggle two phones with different numbers hasn’t been resolved before. Mast Mobile is a mobile carrier that solves that neatly. And for salespeople who must log salescalls into a customer relationship management tool, Mast streamlines calling and enables more comprehensive reporting. It also allows them to reset their work-life balance.

At Monday’s Business Enterprise Meetup in Manhattan, Mast Mobile’s co-founderPeter Lurie, described how the mobilization of the workplace drove the creation of the solution.

According to Lurie, “The traditional [mobile] carriers offer few differentiated services because they are not software companies. This leaves a huge space open for innovation.”

Implications for Life Sciences Marketing?

As a life sciences marketer, I couldn’t help but wonder how a technology like Mast’s could be applied in the biopharmaceutical industry. Perhaps more importantly, how innovation in mobile will serve as one of the transformative forces in healthcare along with digital health and personalized medicine. I’m very closely watching how digital creators are addressing the coming physician shortage,leveraging technology to transform the practice of clinical trials, and how the use of digital tools will transform medicine.

In a followup conversation with Mast’s co-founder David Messenger, we discussed the expansion of the service to include international numbers as well as why marketers in all industries need to quickly adopt a “mobile first” mentality. (David’s written a nice post on Why Isn’t Your Phone Number as Flexible as Your Email.)

My company, messagingLAB, is counseling all our life sciences clients that they need to adopt a mobile first mindset in all communications. What are you doing?

Comments Off on Mobile-First Mindset

Preparing Kids for the Biotech Century

Posted in by Karl S. on November 12, 2015


Melvin’s Li’l Scientist Wristwatch had a built-in DNA extractor. Melvin inserted the filthy toenail into his watch and programmed a complete extraction procedure while the Turbo Toilet 2000 chased him back through town…

As Melvin ran screaming, his watch quickly pulverized and sonicated the toenail cells, removed their membrane lipids, proteins and RNA, and purified and isolate a single strand of Mr. Krupp’s DNA.

When Melvin reached his bedroom laboratory, he quickly fed the results into his Mecha-Computer, which identified themetallo-organic, “super-powered” substance and began replicating it in a saline gel solution. The gel percolated slowly as it oozed into a glass beaker.
      – Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Tyrannical Retaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000 (2014)

Captain Underpants is not a name generally associated with biotechnology. Yet, this wildly successful (70 million copies sold worldwide) series of children’s novels may be the first exposure many children have to biotech. Probably, it won’t be their last.

Just a few years ago the idea that kids would interact with biotechnology might have been unthinkable: The costs associated with DNA sequencing and synthesis were astronomical and required expensive equipment and years of training. Practicing biotechnology in the classroom was literally out of reach.

However, with decreases in the cost of sequencing and synthesis outpacingMoore’s Law, and biotechnology and synthetic biology breakthroughs making the news nearly every day, it has become feasible to expose children to biotech practices. Indeed, it is essential they are exposed to and understand technologies that will play a fundamental role in solving many of the challenges the world faces today and tomorrow.

In contrast, kids are already being taught computer programming at younger and younger ages. In fact, seven EU countries including Britain, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece and Lithuania have set up computer programming as a stand-along subject in their primary and middle schools. Programming languages such as Scratch teach their users the same skills that professional programmers use in their jobs.

Unfortunately, until now, this type of hands-on engagement has not existed for biotechnology.

This article considers is how and why small children might be given similar opportunities, as well as the impact of doing so.

Teaching Synthetic Biology in Middle and High Schools

For the past decade, it’s become commonplace for high school students in biology and AP Biology course to use gel electrophoresis to separate DNA, RNA and proteins, and to learn how to add new genetic material to bacterial cells.

Gel Electrophoresis (source: Huntington's Outreach Project for Education at Stanford)

Gel Electrophoresis (source: Huntington’s Outreach Project for Education at Stanford)

Nearly all teachers that teach the basics of genetic engineering use the same materials and teach the same set of experiments every year. Though these experiments introduce important laboratory techniques, they present a narrow range of experimental problems. In most cases, the laboratory experience ends when the experiment does and students are learning techniques rather than the inquiry or creativity that makes the practice of science exciting.


Earlier this year, Natalie Kuldell, Rachel Bernstein, Karen Ingram and Kathryn M. Hart published BioBuilder, a book-length series of open-access, modular, hands-on experiments designed to be easy to incorporate into high school classrooms and laboratories.

BioBuilder was developed at MIT in collaboration with award-winning high school teachers from across the country with the goal of teaching the foundational ideas of synthetic biology, as well as key aspects of biological engineering that researchers are using in their labs today. The aim was to enrich the way that biotechnology is being taught to middle and high school children.

Among the experiments that BioBuilder teaches are how to measure variants of anenzyme-generating genetic circuit, modeling “bacterial photography,” and building living systems that produce purple or green pigment.

The book and the experiments have been well received because are they easy to introduce into a typical high school biology curriculum (with little to no expense) and expose students to synthetic biology by teaching both science skills and the engineering-design process in the context of living systems.

High School and College Students Advance the Field at iGEM

Every year starting in 2004, high school, college and graduate students have competed in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Student teams are given a kit of Lego-like biological parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, work at their own schools over the summer, and design and build biological systems to solve real-world challenges. They compete in 15 tracks that now include art and design, energy labs, environment, health and medicine, and even policy and practice.

Growth of iGEM participation 2004-2014 (Source: iGEM.org)

Growth of iGEM participation 2004-2014 (Source: iGEM.org)

In its first year, iGEM attracted five teams of students. This year’s Giant Jamboreetook over Boston’s Hynes Convention Center, attracting 260 teams of college and high school students from around the world.

In the past, teams have designed a microbe to detect and kill a fungus that has been destroying the world’s banana supply.  The 2015 Grand Prize-winning teamfrom Virgina’s College of William and Mary characterized the variability (or stochasticity) of gene expression for the most commonly used promoters in synthetic biology. Promoter regions of DNA initiate the first step of turning genomic information into proteins.

The most successful teams have even gone on to start companies based on their ideas. Among them, Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based microorganism engineering company, competed in the first iGEM and recently raised nearly $50 million.

In a 2014 New Yorker article on iGEM, co-organizer Randy Rettberg commented,  “We used to say we just needed to educate people about the science… We said that if they understood it, they would accept it… [but] to create an environment where [these] students can live this future, what we really need to do is involve people.”

In a survey undertaken by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agriculture, it was found that as many as 80 percent of Americans support  “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” about the same number as support mandatory labelling of FMO foods “produced with genetic engineering.” This fundamental misunderstanding of DNA reflected a general lack of understanding of basic science. Giving children the opportunity to learn about biotechnology sooner can only be a good thing.


[Thanks to Davis Endries, John Garrison, Natalie Kuldell, Taylor Hamman andDanielle Wilde for reading early drafts of this.]

Comments Off on Preparing Kids for the Biotech Century

Biofabricate 2015: Scientists + Artists Transform Materials, Manufacturing

Posted in by Karl S. on October 20, 2015

This week, a group of artists, designers, and scientists will gather in New York City for the second annual Biofabricate conference.

They’ll be discussing the use of biological organisms to create new materials and transform manufacturing.

You might think a conference like this would attract only scientists, but surprisingly it is the often artists and designers in attendance who are pushing the limits of biotechnology.

I attended last year’s conference and asked Suzanne Lee, Biofabricate’s organizer, what would be different this year. Here is her preview:

“For one, we’re helping people think beyond 3-D printing with the use of living cells as substrates to build novel materials and systems,” said Lee. “For example, one of our presenting companies, BioBots, has developed a desktop bioprinter that can build three-dimensional living tissues from human cells. One hundred research institutions around the globe purchased that printer, but so did an art school. I believe that combination of scientists and artists-designers working separately and together are driving innovation in biofabrication.”


Pembient’s cultured rhino horns and elephant tusks aim to decrease illegal wildlife poaching – a $20 billion black market.

“We’ll also be looking at how engineered biology has the potential to replace animal products,” continued Lee. “Egg, milk, and meat produced in cell culture are less resource heavy and more sustainableand Pembient’s cultured rhino horns and elephant tusks aim to stop illegal poaching.”

I’m looking forward to hearing more this week about our progress in using biology to advance materials science and manufacturing. Check back for my report next week.

Comments Off on Biofabricate 2015: Scientists + Artists Transform Materials, Manufacturing

Origin Stories: 1

Posted in by Karl S. on August 24, 2015

TL;DR When I started writing, I focused on Dogtown and Z-boys inspired detective stories.

“Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential. But it was the minds of 11 year old that could see that potential.”
– C.R. Stecyk

My first stories were skateboarding stories inspired by C. R. Stecyk‘s Skateboarder Magazine articles – fabrications that chronicled the rise of Dogtown’s Z-boys’  and their mis-adventures.

As a relatively sheltered Ventura kid turned skateboard-geek, I was blown away by the exploits of the Z-boys, who invented vert skating in the drought-emptied swimming pools of Southern California.

Like many who grew up in the late-1970s, Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Bob Biniak, Jim Muir, Stacy Peralta, and the Z-boys – the Zephyr skateboard team – would become my heroes.

(I also had my own local heroes, the Santa Barbara-based Sims team skaters who I encountered regularly in the skateparks, ditches and ramps in Ventura County.)

I devoured and dissected those Dogtown stories and began “borrowing” his openings to write my own skateboarding procedurals. (Later, I would learn Stecyk borrowed the openings and noir atmospheres from Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Hunter S. Thompson, or Jim Thompson).

My main character was a teenage private eye always in search of a missing person.

He criss-crossed Southern California in a hot-rodded Volkswagen Transporter, blasting Led Zepplin, Ted Nugent, and punk rock, while cracking wise along the way.

Inevitably, the stories climaxed at an empty backyard swimming pool or hidden ditch that begged to be ridden.

After an epic skate session, he’d solve the mystery and arrive home in time for dinner.

Before I started writing about biotechnology, I was writing about skateboarding and music – punk, ambient, experimental – but that’s another story for another post.

Thanks Craig Stecyk for sparking this young writer’s imagination.


Biofabricate 2014

Posted in by Karl S. on January 18, 2015

Comments Off on Biofabricate 2014

Asmus Tietchens Interview

Posted in by Karl S. on November 22, 2014

Asmus Tietchens Cover.001


In 1985, I had just graduated from college with a degree in biochemistry and had started the process of figuring out what I was going to do with my life. I had been accepted to a Master’s Degree program but more than anything, I knew that was another year of postponing the inevitable: I would have to get a job.

As a graduation present, my parents gave me a round-trip ticket to Dusseldorf, and a Eurail pass. The perfect set-up for a post-college, once-in-a-lifetime, visit-every-city Eurotrip. I wanted to improve my German so planned the bulk of the trip in Germany, with short jaunts to Switzerland, Italy and France to visit friends and interview experimental musicians as a way of kick-starting my career as an author.


The first Asmus cut I’d heard was “Dahinter Industriegelände” on Three Minute Symphonies. I remember being struck by how different this song sounded next to the other “difficult” music on that compilation. At this point, I don’t remember what else was on that album – a lifetime of listening and the distance of time makes it easy to forget but do I remember I was inspired enough to listen and listen carefully.

At KUCR where I DJ’d, we had been going through a power electronics phase and compared to the angry noise of White House and Ramleh, Asmus music had a melody and his song evoked an emotion that wasn’t raw punk anger. On the inside of the compilation was a very dark black and white photo of a guy wearing glasses with his Hamburg address. I figured what the hell and wrote him. I also wrote Frank Fenstermacher of Der Plan, Wolfgang Müller of Die Tödliche Doris, Vittore Baroni of Trax, and the folks at Deficit Des Annees Anterieurs in Caen France.

A few weeks later, I received a letter from Asmus inviting me to Hamburg. His letter was the first (everyone else also wrote back and accepted the invitation to be interviewed).

Asmus asked that I contact him as soon as I arrived in Hamburg. I had never intended on going to Hamburg but it was a few hours from Dusseldorf and was on my way to West Berlin. When I arrived, I called from the train station. He picked up and gave me directions to his flat. Next thing I knew, I was walking down a tree-lined street, standing at the top of a stoop in front of a whitewashed, six-story building street knocking on his door.

A tall pale man with black hair and thick glasses answered. We shook hands and he smiled, “Welcome to Hamburg.” We smiled at each other as if the exchange of information that was about to take place was important. I’m sure he was as curious about the industrial music fan from California, with the very German name, as I was about the experimental musician.

Asmus led me up a marble staircase four-five floors up to his room. What I remember: a room floor-to-ceiling with bookshelves filled with books, a small coffee table and a small corner desk that shared even more books, and a turntable with  a few records. A window overlooked the street, though it didn’t seem that much light could ever filter in. While the ceiling was high overhead, the room seemed small and cramped. The furniture: a sofa covered with a velvet blanket against one wall, a small desk shrinking under the weight of those tomes and the walls of sound that would gush from the speakers.

He had me sit on the sofa where I could take in the books, the shelf of reel-to-reel tapes. What I didn’t see were any records, so I asked, “Where’s your record collection?”

“I can’t keep them all here,” he answered.

I had expected a serious conversation with a serious experimental musician. Instead, we spent the next 24 hours time joking and laughing. We laughed about German and American culture, politics, travel, and music, always coming back to the music.

During the conversation, Asmus would stop, put on a record, and we’d be surrounded by sound. At one point, he pulled out a drawer under the coffee table and showed me a little keyboard he used to compose or work on the compositions he was thinking of before he went into the studio. For me it was strange to think that little keyboard was the origin of the soundscapes you’d hear on his recordings.

He offered cup after cup of thick coffee which, along with the cigarettes he was rolling and smoking, the droney music filling the room, had the effect of putting me to sleep.

“You’re tired,” he said.

I admitted I was. Jet-lagged. Second day in Europe. Still on California time.

Asmus took me downstairs, down the street to a friend’s studio, a place that he, according to Christoph Heeman of HNAS and Achim Wollscheid of P16D4, perpetually cared for and would put up his friends. There, surrounded by metal sculpture and welding tools, I promptly fell asleep.

Over the course of the next day, we would continue our conversation in that small room, eat at cafes in Hamburg, and visit what would become Walter Ulbricht Schallplatten. When it came time to leave, he accompanied me to the train station and saw me off to Berlin.

To read the rest of interview, email me or purchase the book (Amazon).

Comments Off on Asmus Tietchens Interview

Synthetic Biology Business Model Evolution

Posted in by Karl S. on July 10, 2014

Comments Off on Synthetic Biology Business Model Evolution