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.
Thus we say,
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.
How you present your business, your story, your offer is no secret. In many cases, it’s the presentation that matters.
The voice you use, the magazines your content appears in, the social channels you engage in. Your presentation is the articles, blog posts, and white papers you publish. It’s the videos on your web site and on YouTube.
A consistent message presented regularly builds and engages your audience, and can increase trust.
In my humble opinion, presentation is also about reminding your audience that you are present and that your product or service can solve a very real problem they are having.
A few weeks ago, I asked my readers to take part in a project to help a product I’m working on creating. They asked me a number of questions, I provided answers.
Q. WHAT DO YOU DO TO ENGAGE YOUR AUDIENCE?
A. If you’re already blogging or sending emails, go back through your logs to figure out what your audience has been most engaged by. Look for patterns. They should be obvious. Create new content based on those patterns.
Maybe you don’t have a lot of content. In that case, survey your audience (like I did to create this post). Run surveys on social media targeted at your ideal audience. Pay for ads on Facebook. It’s the easiest, fastest, most inexpensive way to target very, very specific audiences.
Q. HOW DO YOU INCREASE INTEREST TO EXPAND YOUR AUDIENCE?
A. Use social channels to promote your content. If you must, pay to promote your content on those channels, they allow for very specific targeting.
Q. IS THERE A GREAT WAY TO RE-ENGAGE OLD CLIENTS?
A. Run a reactivation campaign. Remind the ex-clients of the successes you had together. Describe your new products or services, and how they can solve new problems. Also, remember that you can never stop marketing to old (or new) clients.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.]
Then last week, Science ran an issue on the creation of synthetic chromosomes.
Scientists have synthesized five of the 16 chromosomes that comprise baker’s yeast. – Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
We have a long relationship with that species of yeast. We use it to make wine, brew beer, and make bread. It’s the microorganism we most use for fermentation. It’s also one of the most studied model organisms in molecular and cell biology. It is relatively easy to modifygenetically and be grown at scale. That’s important for industrial applications.
Since s. cerevisiae is well-characterized, it made sense that scientists would choose to create a synthetic version.
It’s not the first, synthetic organism. 
That distinction goes to the researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute. In 2010, they created a replica of Mycoplasma mycoides, a parasite that causes pneumonia in goats. They called that new entity syn1.0.
In 2016, Venter’s group streamlined (or “defragged”) the M. mycoides genome to create what they termed “the first minimal synthetic bacterial cell.” The original synthesis in 2010 caused a bit of an uproar. Last year’s news, not so much.
Let’s get back to yeast.
Back in 2014, New York University yeast geneticist, Jef Boeke announced that he and a group of undergraduate researchers had synthesized the first baker’s yeast chromosome. (Remember, yeast has 16 chromosomes.)
It was a significant development because it only took a few years. And undergrads did most of the work. (In contrast, Craig Venter and his team took 15 years and US$40 million to synthesize syn1.0.)
Boeke and a team of researchers started the SC2.0 project to “synthesize a modified version of the genome chromosome by chromosome, from the bottom up.”
In last week’s announcement, the researchers announced they had “untangled, streamlined and reorganized the genome of the most studied of all eurkaryotic genomes.”
Ultimately, the synthetic organism they create will be yeast reimagined. At the same time they’ll add features “to facilitate chromosome construction and manipulation.”
When will synthetic yeast be finished?
By the end of 2017.
Researchers will complete the construction of an entire synthetic yeast genome by the end of 2017. – Click to Tweet.
My prediction was wrong by three years. Oh well.
 In an email, Andrew Hessel one of the scientists behind the Genome Write Project, wrote, “People tend to split hairs about synthetic organisms… They argue the organism itself (yeast) isn’t synthetic.” I wrote back, “if you take an organism (yeast), delete a bunch of stuff that doesn’t seem to do anything (or defrag, per Craig Venter), and it still works, then it’s a synthetic organism. Because it doesn’t exist in nature.” Andrew wrote back, “I think any genome that is produced de novo via synthesis and boots up a replicating organism makes that organism by definition a synthetic organism.” Your mileage may vary.
Despite the overwhelming need for teachers , the profession currently is looked down upon in the United States and people don’t understand that if you don’t invest in education, you’re not investing in the future. (Cynically, I understand the reason the United States doesn’t emphasize education more is that an educated populace is harder to control *cough* I mean, govern.)
It might not sound like a sexy profession, but it is a growth industry and will be for some time. By 2050, we’ll need to feed a planet of 9 billion people. And we’ll need to do it in the face of severe climate change and water shortages.
The American farmer is on average 58 years old.
This is of concern because no matter how much automation, robotics, and big data impact farming, you still need people to run those farms. Food security is an issue
So, I looked at the question a bit differently:
What would be the minimum number of people we could train to have a massive impact on jobs now and in the future?
[Digression: When we talk about creating jobs, we’re talking about creating employees. Others have pointed out, no employers wants to hire employees. Plus, most people hate their jobs. This is a big part of the issue with current job growth models. So, instead of talking about creating jobs, let’s talk about creating entrepreneurs and business owners. Luckily, this is something that Americans excel at.]
So in thinking about the answer, I thought about sectors that are currently experiencing high-growth and create value with fewer people.
Right now, biotechnology makes up nearly 3 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product. It contributes more to the US GDP than mining and utilities – and almost as much as construction.
Over the past decade, biotech grew on average more than 10 percent per year, much faster than the rest of the economy. Biotech also requires fewer people to create significant value.
If you can imagine a small team developing a valuable medicine, an industrial enzyme, or a modification to a plant – all of those are potentially worth billions of dollars.
For most people, biotech is scary  but brewing beer is not.
Brewing is biotechnology…
distilled to its simplest form (and yeah, I did intend that pun). Fermentation is the oldest form of biotechnology and we’ve been doing it for 9,000 years
A brewer takes ingredients that have little value separately – water, grain, and hops – and creates something of value. (That sounds a lot like pulling money out of thin air, which is what good entrepreneurs do.)
I can’t find the stat, but I’ve read that all Americans now live within ten miles of a microbrewery.
What are the trickle down effects?
A microbrewery employs at least a few people. They have to buy the grain and hops which someone has to grow and process that requires more people, some farmers.
For example, New York state used to be the epicenter of U.S. hop production. The industry, destroyed by mildew-related disease and Prohibition, moved West. But now, the New York hops industry is re-emerging. (It’ll take a while to make a dent in the industry, NY grow only 300 acres, while Oregon and Washington State are growing some 400,000 acres of commercial hops). The microbrew boom is driving the farming of hops.
But doesn’t that mean the market is saturated?
I don’t know much about the specific outlook for breweries but since it involved biotechnology, making the jump from brewing to fermentation would be a small leap. The next leap would be to distributed biological manufacturing.
Back in 2001, Rob Carlson described distributed biological manufacturing as means of producing many of the things we used today. That means people who are trained as brewers can easily learn to brew items that are potentially of much greater value than beer.
For example, Bolt Threads is one of three synthetic biology companies that has genetically engineered yeast to produce spider silk – one of the strongest materials created by nature. That silk can be used to produce jackets, shoes, and bulletproof vests. And those are only a few of its uses.
In 2015, Stanford researcher Christina Smolke made the news for engineering yeast to produce opioids. Today, it takes one year to produce hydrocodone from poppies that are legally grown in Tasmania. At the time there was some debate as to whether such technology would be abused, say by drug cartels. The bigger debate should probably have been how do you give access to people who have no access to painkillers. Smolke and her team started a company, Antheia, whose mission is to make and fairly provide medicines to all who need them.
It’s not a stretch to imagine brewers being able to produce very high value products very easily.
So, if you want to have a massive impact on the economy, train 500 brewers.
 I am happily married to a public school art teacher and come from a family of educators.
Learned to skateboard ramps and pools. Memorized every ditch and was part of an informal word-of-mouth network that knew when a new ramp appeared in Ventura. Convinced my parents to drive me to skateparks all over Southern California, so I skated a bunch of the first-generation classic parks. My home was Oxnard’s Endless Wave with it’s odd, over-vert double-pool. Favorite trick: Frontside air. Second favorite: Inverts. Pool Skating Will Never Die. Biggest lesson I learned from skateboarding: Always get up after you fall. That applies to pretty much everything in life. Fail. Get up. Try again.
Lived in Lausanne, Switzerland for a year, where I studied French. That would inspire me to improve my German, learn Italian, study other languages. I was also part of a Swiss skateboard team that toured that small country.
Took piano lessons for 13 years. Practiced every day. Played in recitals twice a year. Learned to play the trombone in high school, taught myself saxophone. Played in a free jazz punk band called The Love Shortcut that played high school parties – probably to the dismay of the kids that were there to drink and have under-aged sex. The band turned into several solo performance art pieces and later, to readings at poetry slams. I learned that if you put your mind to it, you can pretty much learn anything.
Had crushes Fell in love. Had my heart broken. Finally kissed a girl. Eventually had sex but didn’t have it again for a long, long time.
Learned to do it yourself. Skateboard culture with its emphasis on self-reliance gave way to punk rock and its Do It Yourself aesthetic. I would eventually grow bored with punk music philosophizing but never with self-reliance and DIY. This would inspire the way I approach business. See the Lesson mentioned in #1.
Saw tons of live bands during the hey-day of early West Coast punk. Favorite venue: The Whiskey A Go Go. Favorite show: 45 Grave opening for The Cramps. Kept seeing a steady diet of bands in Boston, Denver, New York, and wherever I happened to be traveling.
Started a lawn care business so I could pay for my skateboard habit. Took jobs as a glazier, a lab assistant, a Spanish-English translator, a transcriber, a temp. Learned that I could get a job in 24 hours if put my mind to it. Also, learned that even if I worked for someone, I eventually was going to be my own boss. Call this early lessons in entrepreneurship.
Read far and wide, learning that I like bold ideas and works of the imagination. Focused on science fiction and science fact which inspired me to study science and become a science writer.
Moved from my hometown of Ventura to Riverside for college, to Boston, New Orleans then Boulder and Denver for grad school. I miss Ventura every day.
Spent way too much time putting off the real-world by staying in school. Got a Master of Science in Biochemistry, a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, took more writing classes. Eventually decided I needed to learn business, took classes on selling and marketing.
While working on that MFA, studied with Keith Abbott, Kathy Acker, Fielding Dawson and Allen Ginsburg.
Started keeping a journal. I knew I was going to write but it was my father who suggested it might be nice to keep a journal while traveling. I did and continue today, 30 years later. I have boxes of journals in my basement and on my shelves. I rarely look at them, but occasionally look for ideas I had in the past. I figure I will eventually either plunder them for something worthwhile or throw them into a landfill.
Traveled alone across Europe, mostly in German-speaking countries because I wanted to learn German.
Interviewed a bunch of German experimental musicians, published those interviews, along with reviews of live shows and records. That was the beginning of my writing career. But I didn’t get paid for a published piece of magazine writing until my mid-40s.
Taught myself Italian because I had a friend who lived in Chiasso, I wanted to speak with to Italian girls, and I thought it’d be fun. Did better with the Italian than with the girls.
Saved my money so I could move cross-country. Moved to Boston because I didn’t have the guts to make the leap to New York City even though that’s where I knew I belonged. Justified Beantown by telling myself I’d work at a biotech company, instead waited tables, took odd jobs, and taught myself to write.
Drove cross-country in a 1970 Karmann-Ghia with my ex-girlfriend’s dog. Realized there’s a reason why Americans prefer big cars. If your parents or your girlfriend live on the other side of the state, driving a small car is no fun – you want a land yacht.
Taught myself Brazilian Portuguese while living in Boston. I was inspired by David Byrne’s Brazilian compilations and the professionals that had emigrated from Brazil to work in restaurants. Made some great friends. Again learned that you can learn anything if you put your mind to it. Also, learned that if you don’t practice what you learn (Portuguese in this case), eventually you forget.
Danced a lot. It took me 20 years to realize how much I enjoyed it and how important it is for all of us. Zumba classes occasionally fulfill this now. We don’t dance enough. You need to dance.
Spent a lot of time angry or depressed and lonely. It took me years to realize that bars and dance clubs, drinking and drugs, and spending money are distractions from the real work of writing.
Eventually realized I could write about what I loved and carve out a unique niche. Used that idea to create a network in New York City. I called every health care public relations agency, interviewed at thirty, and was offered jobs by six. Moved to New York.
Shortly after I started working in public relations, realized it wasn’t going to work for me and remembered I would need to become my own boss.
Taught other people how to get a job by networking directly with decision makers.
Spent every night after work writing five novels and ten screenplays. Collected a stack of form rejections, got close to publishing one of the novels, realized I needed more time to figure out what I was going to write. At the same time wrote dozens of short short stories, published a few, and threw away all the rest because they were all terrible.
Accumulated credit card debt that took me way too long to pay off and learned that it’s too easy – way too easy – to get into debt.
Hiked and camped and learned to appreciate nature.
Learned to listen to myself. I didn’t always pay attention but I definitely listened.
Came to appreciate my parents and my sister, realized I was very lucky to have grown up where I did, speaking Spanish at home, with a pair of pretty great people. My father was a meatcutter who taught me how to work hard; my mother was a Spanish-English interpreter who taught me to use my imagination and creativity. We lived modestly but always had what we needed.
Met the girl of my dreams, chased her from Boston to Albuquerque to New York City and married her.
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.