Interview: John Cumbers of SynBioBeta | Passionate Entrepreneurs Using Biology to Improve the World

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.

John Cumbers of SynBioBeta. Photo by David Kong.


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.