Who Takes iGEM Seriously?

This past week iGEM startup PvP Biologics closed a $35 million round with Takeda.

Last year, in June 2016, Ginkgo Bioworks raised $100 million. The company was founded by a team that participated in the first iGEM competitions.

The iGEM startup page lists some 19 startups that originated from the competition.

While Christopher VanLang is right that is “an excellent teaching tool but not likely taken seriously by academia,” I believe it’s more important than we realize.

The Origins of iGEM

As outlined in Rob Carlson’s excellent Biology is Technology, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition grew out of an independent activities project course in synthetic biology at MIT in 2003, which in turn was inspired by a circuit design course taught at MIT in the last-1970s.

It was organized by Tom Knight, a senior scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and an early participate in designing the Internet precursor, ARAPNet, Drew Endy, and Randy Rettberg, an engineer and former exec at Sun Microsystems and Apple, who now serves as president of iGEM.

In 2003, the idea that biology could be engineered was still a radical idea. (For context, 2003 was two years after the dot com bubble of 1996–2001 crashed and two years after 9/11/2001.)

In 2004, the first official competition included students from Boston University, Caltech, MIT, Princeton University and the University of Texas, Austin. The students that participated created the first rudimentary genetic circuits.

Over the years, the student projects have grown increasingly complex.

The competition has grown internationally and the number of participants has grown exponentially (in 2016, there were more than 5,000 participants from around the globe).

Disclaimer: I Am a Long-time iGEM Fan

I had been following iGEM since 2010 when I started looking to synthetic biology as a way of applying Internet business models to biotechnology. I attended my first competition in 2016 as an observer and to accompany my son, a high school senior who was a member of the GenSpace team.

I was lucky enough to speak with teams from across the United States, China, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan and Mexico. I watched presentations from teams solving real problems using biology and demonstrating that biology can solve impossible problems.

In addition, as part of the competition, the teams had to engage with their communities. To me, as a science writer, this is one of the most significant benefits of iGEM: high school and college kids learn about synthetic biology but also help dispel myths associated with biotechnology. (Not to mention every team is contributing to the BioBricks project.)

What’s fascinating is giving kids the tools of engineered biology is that they are able to use their imaginations without the constraints of the science they will likely learn in college. This is an important creative exercise. (The new BioDesign Challenge does something similar with design students. It will be interesting to see how that evolves over time.)

I walked away impressed.

Maybe iGEM isn’t taken seriously by academia, but it is taken very seriously by the kids that participate. At some point someone will write a history of iGEM or follow a team reality-show style. It could make for some very compelling, dramatic storytelling.

If iGEM is a leading indicator of what is possible in synthetic biology, then the future is very bright indeed.