Q. What are the ways you can tell a good event from a great event?
A. The people. The presentations. And the fact that no one wants to leave.
Early in December, I attended the first Biofabricate conference at Microsoft’s NYC office. Organized by Biocouture’s Suzanne Lee, SynBioBeta’s John Cumbers, and Microsoft’s Tereza Nemessanyi, the event brought together synthetic biologists, fashion designers and artists on the leading edge, and anyone with an interest in grown materials. .
Here are my notes from the conference:
- In his intro, Riffyn’s Tim Garner said that materials will likely feel the biggest impact of biotech since there are very few things we humans want to do that biology hasn’t already done. I agree with his assessment. Tim also mentioned most design is about making things understandable by people but biology has no such constraints. Biological design is in constant evolution, evolution can’t be stopped and it means we need to think about how we would like biology will evolve. Riffyn is focused on solving the problem of the non-reproducibility of lab results. Here’s an astonishing fact:4 out of 5 studies are not reproducible. Riffyn’s measurement systems seek to bring reproducibility to the next level. This will be necessary as we move toward programmable biology.
- Andrew Phillips – Head Biocomputation Program/Biological Computational Group at Microsoft, suggested that software will advance synthetic biology very quickly by reverse engineering immune and development systems (i.e., stem cells) and forward engineering (or programming) cells and molecules. Andrew’s group is working on novel programming languages, creating biological modeling environments, and exploring how cells exploit stochastic behaviors, which is necessary to understand cellular multiprocessing without overwhelming the cell. While I agree with Andrew, there is still the rate-limiting step associated with getting things that work on a computer to work in a lab. Overcoming that hurdle will take some time.
- Carlos Olguin of Autodesk discussed how synthetic biology has massive computational needs, especially as we begin moving toward manufacturing with biology. He suggested that biology will serve as the inspiration not only for the next generation of computing but for 21st century manufacturing.
- Allison Pieja of Mango Materials told us that bioplastics are expensive. Mango is focused on creating cheap bioplastics from the waste methane produced from waster water treatment, landfills and cattle feedlots. Mango’s methods of bioplastics production are already being optimized. I was very impressed by the progress Mango has made.
- Jen Vandermeer of Reason Street gave a provactive and inspiring talk about the application of systems thinking to synthetic biology.
- Rachel Haurwitz of Caribou Biosciences announced the formation of Atlas Ventures/Novartis-funded Intaglia, to apply the use of the gene editing tool CRISPR to therapeutic applications and to collaborate broadly across the pharmaceutical industry. I’d seen Rachel present at SynBioBeta and came away with a much better understanding of the technology.
- Skyler Tibbits of MIT described how to code a language for the self-assembly of materials. He mentioned his lab has been working on programming carbon fibers and wood as a method of controlling materials layering and shaping. He called this “evoluationary fabrication.”
- Paola Antonelli, senior design curator at the Museum of Modern Art gave a presentation on a 2009 MOMA exhibit titled “Design of the Elastic Mind.” In her opinion, “Designers help people with change.” She suggested that scientists work more closely with designers because “designers are the enzymes that allow the world to metabolize progress.” I agree with her as a lot of the resistance to science come IMHO from people who haven’t been exposed enough.
- Ginger Dosier of BioMason said her career began when asked what if you could grow a brick. She mentioned that 1.23 trillion bricks are made each year, releasing some 800 billion tons of CO2. Biomason’s core product is a cement that allows grains of sand to bind. Their product is market-ready and they are scaling.
- Patrick Boyle of Ginkgo Bioworks described their work of borrowing genes from roses to build biosynthetic pathways that will create new fragrances. They’ve been working with one of the oldest perfumeries in the world and have even started using ancient roses in their designs.
- Koert van Mensvoort of Next Nature gave the funniest, most entertaining and most thought-provoking presentations of the day. Van Mensvoort has been working on conceptual art projects that explore how nature and culture are shifting. He noted that the Internet is one of the biggest, articial networks every created and should be considered a living, biological entity. His graph showing born/controlled versus beyond control and made was fun. Will we see Born in the Lab branding any time soon? Koert is the first M.S./M.F.A. that I’ve ever met. Having a conversation with him was like speaking to a long-lost brother.
- Gavin McIntyre of Ecovative noted that sustainability must be based on the biological. Ecovative creates materials using mycelium and they have created replacements for stryofoam packing bubbles, which are borne of petroleum and require multiple chemicals to produce. Their latest product, mycoboard, replaces plywood and MDF, without using dangerous chemicals.
- Maurizio Montalti of Officina Corpuscoli gave a great presentation on our relationship with fungi, nature’s great feeders, disassemblers and recyclers. He suggested we’ collaborate with fungi to create novel fabrication processes.” His lab is currently growing materials using pure mycelium.
- Andras Forgacs of Modern Meadow described the amount of water necessary to product a pound of steak (it’s a lot). Modern Meadow is working on creating “synthetic meats and leathers” using bovine cells. He described the creation of novel materials and composites, as well as how they are engineering growth in three dimensions. He wants to see a world where consumers have the choice to choose between products that are “cultured not slaughtered.” As with Natsai Chieza presentation on the dying of silk with bacteria, Andras’ talk got me thinking about how much water it takes to produce an almond, a t-shirt and a piece of meat. Way too much.
- Fiorenzo Omenetto of Tufts SilkLab described how bombyx ori are a remarkable biofabrication factory. He described why silk is a great material as it is sustainable, can be processed in water. He’s been working on creating biologically active inks that do not need refrigeration and resorbable materials made of magnesium and silk. These materials have been implanted to “melt” away staph infections as well as to create resorbable bio-electronic devices. He suggested, “the body interface is the ultimate interface… we just need to get the level of performance that we get from inorganics…”
In her recent Medium article, BioFabrication 101, Christina Agapakis noted,
…the most exciting speakers at the event weren’t talking about programming cells, they were designers… demonstrating the power of full-bodied biology, not just DNA.
I echo Christina’s sentiment.
This event, the first of its kind, stood out for me in terms of inspiring presentations, exceptional networking and the combination of people that were there.
At the end of a very long day, no one wanted to leave. Every time I started to walk down the hall toward the exit, someone would pull me aside and I’d end up in another long and worthwhile conversation.
I’m looking forward to next year’s event.