Here’s a spoken word version of the keynote I gave at Biofabricate 2017.
To learn more about why you need a bio strategy, click here.
Here’s a spoken word version of the keynote I gave at Biofabricate 2017.
To learn more about why you need a bio strategy, click here.
Happy New Year!
Over the holidays, I unsubscribed from dozens of newsletters. I was very critical in thinking through whether a newsletter belonged in my email box. Was it helping me stay informed? Was it inspiring? Or, was it wasting (virtual) space? Here are a few of the newsletters I subscribe to stay up to date on biotech, pharma and synthetic biology news.
I subscribe to few general business, sales, and inspirational newsletters from the following superstars:
What are you reading? Are there biotech newsletters that I missed?
Have you subscribed to messagingLAB’s newsletter? Sign up here.
Good Riddance 2017
It was a good year, but not without its challenges.
My three words were bold, creative, authority and I kept those in mind all year long.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
TL;DR. Bio strategy is a framework to incorporate biology, biotechnology into your business.
“At the dawn of the 21st Century, strategy seems to have gone out of fashion.” – Chet Holmes, Certain to Win
The word “strategy” has become so overused that most people have forgotten what strategy really means.
John Cumbers and I were inspired to write What’s Your Bio Strategy? because it was clear that few businesses understood the impact that biology was having – even among those who could benefit from the technologies. After all, the phrase “knowledge is power,” is commonly attributed to Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method and visionary for the first scientific institution, the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.
So before we define bio strategy, let’s review the definitions of strategy.
Strategy defines your destination, not the road to get there.
Strategy is a guiding framework.
Strategy, according to Kenichi Ohmrae of McKinsey’s Toyko office, “isn’t about beating the competition. It’s serving customers’ real needs.”
Harvard Business School professor Gary Pisano says,
“Strategy is nothing more than a commitment to a set of coherent, mutually reinforcing policies aimed at achieving a specific competitive goal. Good strategies promote alignment among diverse groups in an organization, clarify objectives and priorities, and help focus efforts around them.”
Martin Reeves, the managing director of Boston Consulting Group’s New York office and author of Your Strategy Needs a Strategy, suggests, all companies are identical to biological species in that both are complex adaptive systems. Therefore, the strategies that confer the ability to survive and thrive under rapidly changing conditions, whether natural or manmade, are directly applicable to business.
Bio strategy is a framework for incorporating biology into your business.
It is a plan to incorporate biology into your company’s existing mission, vision, and goals.
To find out more about What’s Your Bio Strategy? subscribe here.
I’m co-author of a book called What’s Your Biostrategy? With SynBioBeta’s John Cumbers, we’re writing about the impact of biotechnology on ALL business. Over the next few months, I’m going to publish interview summaries from the book. For more information, scroll to the bottom of the post.
In 2000, Tim Gardner wrote one of synthetic biology’s seminal papers: Construction of a Genetic Toggle Switch in Escherchia Coli. At Amyris he led the engineering of yeast strains and pioneered process technologies for the large-scale bio-manufacturing of renewable chemicals. He founded Riffyn to create tools to accelerate innovation in research and development. My co-author John Cumbers and I interviewed Tim for What’s Your Bio Strategy? Here’s a few excerpts from the interview:
“To increase the size of the bio-based economy, we need to reduce the cost of developing bio-based products that would have been made from petroleum and chemistry. If we can do that, then developing more specialized products will be acceptable. We’ll stop searching for billion dollar blockbusters. We’ll have more entrepreneurial successes and investors will be happy because we’re delivering on the promises of the bio-based economy.”[“At Riffyn, our] thesis is that the solution to faster, better, cheaper drugs, and faster, better, cheaper bio-based products is the predictability of information. It’s about integrating information to make better, informed decisions. It’s not necessarily about fancy robots or magical tools.”
“Engineering has more science in it than people realize.”
“The idea that scientists are being paid more or are delivering more value or are in greater demand is not entirely true. It’s hard to hire engineers.”
“Value tends to accrue to people and organizations that can reduce uncertainty.”
“There are organisms that can detect light or transform electricity into energy for survival. Muscles are incredibly efficient compared to the hydraulics or batteries that you might put into a robot. If we want to use those properties to make the world a more efficient, higher performing, more enjoyable place, then we need to learn how to learn from nature.”
Want to read the full interview? Visit What’s Your Bio Strategy?
Jennifer Lopez and Zachary Quinto.
Biotech is going mainstream in a big way.
That was the message to the more than 5,600 high school and college students crowded into Boston’s Hynes Convention Center for the 2016 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
Lopez’s production company is producing CRISPR, a near-future crime drama named after the gene-editing tool that Science Magazine dubbed 2015’s Breakthrough of the Year.
Quinto, star of Heroes and the Star Trek-reboot, is producing and starring in BioPunk, a drama based on the book of the same name. It explores the world of DIY-scientists and garage biohackers.
Standing in front of the crowd, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Ed You pointed out that, unfortunately, Lopez’ and Quinto’s shows will likely continue Hollywood’s long-standing war against science – a disservice to young people worldwide who might consider careers as scientists .
That disservice, he said, also presents a great responsibility to the students in the audience. Those students and the iGEM alumni that number in the thousands spread widely around the globe still are, according to Stanford synthetic biologist, Drew Endy, “one in a million. And that isn’t enough.”
Unexpected applications of biotechnology today
A biological material that can absorb uranium.
Plants that generate electricity.
Proteins engineered to respond to sound.
These were a few of the synthetic biology applications created by the nearly 300 teams that traveled to iGEM from as far as South Africa, Pakistan, China and Australia, as well as from universities across the European Union and the United States.
In 2009, I had been told that if I wanted to see the future of biotechnology, I needed to attend iGEM. It’s where kids develop biological solutions that use functioning bits of genetic information (BioBricks) to solve real-world problems. Sometimes those solutions are audacious and function. Often, they do not.
Students learn how to think and work like scientists. They must engage their communities. This is an important way to expose kids to the Biotech Century.
Over the summer, my son, Alejandro joined the GenSpace iGEM team. The Brooklyn team would be competing in the overgraduate category as team members ranged in age from high school juniors to grad students.
Since I write about the rapid advance of life science technologies, I was interested in how the young scientists participating in iGEM would tell their stories. I also wondered what storytellers could learn from the competition.
Here are a few of the things that I learned.
Standing on the shoulders of giants.
The term “synthetic biology” is more than a hundred years old, but published pieces discussing the creation of biological circuits date only to 2000. Modern biotechnology is not even fifty years old.
iGEM is now twelve years old. From the beginning, it has given students the opportunity to leverage all of biotechnology’s history, as well as synthetic biology’s recent history of applying engineering and design principles to biology.
What iGEM doesn’t give is design constraints.
It gives them BioBricks – interchangeable standard biological parts, pieces of DNA, the computer code of life, that have been developed to build biological systems in living cells.
Most of the students working with the BioBricks probably don’t understand the molecular details of those parts – they don’t need to. They understand that the Bricks are like Legos and can be combined, arranged, recombined and rearranged in seemingly infinite ways. That simplifies the process of design and construction.
Many of those standard biological parts were created or characterized by previous iGEM teams. So, each competition can build upon the previous years’ and contribute the new parts they create to the registry that in turn will be used by future teams.
For example, Team Peking, the 2016 team behind the new biomaterial designed to absorb uranium, constructed a library of parts that they submitted to the BioBricks Foundation. They also offered experimental materials to other Chinese teams.
This is the way that science is practiced in the real world:
Science as a collaborative sport.
Over and over again, iGEM teams referenced the parts they used, as well as the other teams they asked for advice and advised.
Collaboration is considered an essential skill in the 21st century as it promotes the type of deep learning needed to identify and promote complex problems. Nearly every team I saw on stage was gender diverse and depended on older mentors.
For example, the team from Brooklyn’s community lab Genspace consisted of high school, college, and graduate students. They were mentored by a biotech entrepreneur, a microbiologist, and biologist. There were 11 people onstage, plus their mentor in a tardigrade costume.
As part of the competition, all teams were questioned by a panel of judges comprising experienced academics and professionals. The questions asked were often difficult for the teams to answer. If the team pushed up against the limits of biosafety, the judges asked how risks were minimized.
Many teams also faced the additional challenge of having English as a second language. I watched teams struggle, passing the microphone, as they discussed the answer among themselves, until one team member felt confident enough to address the judges.
Sharing information dispels myths
One of the many teams from Mexico pointed out that 65% of Mexicans believe in magic.
(If you think that’s odd, remember that mistrust of science runs deep in the U.S. and has resulted in a surge of anti-vaccine sentiment and a government that wants to shut down most basic research-funding institutions. In the European Union, fears of genetic engineering have resulted in stringent controls on the use and growth of genetically modified crops, which have in turn prevented their adoption in many African countries where such crops could help feed a hungry population.)
To participate in the competition, iGEM teams are required to engage their local community in Human Practices: the study of how your work affects the world and the world affects your work.
Team Peshawar, the first ever iGEM team from Pakistan, traveled across their country visiting schools and college, running a roadshow to engage and educate as many people as they could about synthetic biology. They developed BioBrick trading cards for younger children and were featured on national television, in national newspapers, and on one international biotech web site.
The team, like many others, wrote a policy paper for the Pakistani government. The paper contained recommendations for the development of synthetic biology in Pakistan, as well as its impact on science and education and the economy.
As a storyteller, I found this one of the most important parts of being in iGEM:
You’re telling non-scientists about an important field that is rapidly growing and is quickly impacting all of our lives.
In his book Regenesis, Harvard genetics professor George Church wrote of iGEM,
“Some of the world’s most imaginative, significant, and potentially even the most powerful biological structures and devices [are] now coming not from biotech firms or from giant pharmaceutical companies, but from the ranks of university, college, and even secondary school students who were doing it mainly in the spirit of advanced educational recreation.”
When Professor Church visited iGEM this year, he was mobbed by students, following around like a rockstar. iGEMers have heroes, and those heroes are real scientists.
Let’s hope Lopez and Quinto follow iGEM’s lead by showing scientists are not crazy loners inspired to destroy world, but real people solving real problems by sharing information, collaborating, and dispelling myths.
 Especially considering STEM jobs are growing three-times faster and pay 26 percent more than non-STEM jobs [U.S. Department of Commerce].
 My high school senior was on the GenSpace team. They took the Overgraduate Award for measurement.
 The BioDesign Challenge, started this past year, offers art and design students the opportunity to envision future applications of biology. While the entries in the first year’s competition were more abstract than those at iGEM, students again, are not constrained by convention and could let their imaginations run wild.
[Thanks to Erum Azeez-Khan, Nat Connors, John Cumbers, Kristin Ellis, John Garrison, and Susan Rensberger for reading early drafts of this.]