Netflix just started airing Altered Carbon. It’s a rad take Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 cyberpunk novel. One of my favorite genres, cyberpunk typically explores how the street repurposes tech, life in cyberspace and off-planet.
Last fall, I reread William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy – Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. (Neuromancer, BTW, is credited with “launching” the cyberpunk genre, though purists will cite British New Wave authors and Philip K. Dick as originators.)
I was searching for biotech references. And man, did I find them, from the neurotoxin sacs that are surgically implanted in Neuromancer main character Case’s body, to a Mitsubishi-Genentech merger (that never happened), and hackers trying to bring back by-then extinct horses.
In many ways, Gibson already riding the biotech wave years before synthetic biology was re-defined. Gibson includes less biotech in later novels but he is always readable. His writing enjoyable and thought-provoking and he remains one of my favorite authors, plus his Twitter stream is a blast to follow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.