I recently shared this reading list with thesalesblog author and sales guru Anthony Iannarino. Anthony’s extremely well read but admitted he didn’t read much fiction. Here’s what I wrote him:
I grew up on science fiction and have read a lot of it and admit it’s inspired my career. But I’ve also read a lot of magical realism, international fiction, juvenile/middle grades (thank you kids!), binge-read mysteries and have a soft spot in my heart for trashy novels (like those of Lee Childs, Jackie Collins, Jacqueline Susanne).
Mostly, I like books that explore an idea, but the books that I’ve read and reread the most times are:
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, a very short, very Mexican book that has blown me away and inspired me every single time I’ve read it. At this point, I’ve probably read it dozens of times. It’s considered to the book that defined the magical realism genre and inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book was so influential on Marquez that he could recite long sections of it from memory.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. It’s his shortest novel but you can get most of his themes and big ideas there: paranoia, consumerism, American exceptionalism, and layers upon layers of mystery. Pynchon is probably most famous for Gravity’s Rainbow, written in the 1960s. It’s been couple of decades since I read that monster tome but parts have stuck with me. I haven’t gotten to his newer work but have been looking forward to reading Inherent Vice for a long while.
Neuromancer by William Gibson. That’s the one where cyberspace is defined and first explored. It’s a fast-moving thriller/mystery. Been a while since I reread but it’s an old friend. I’m also partial to his Pattern Recognition, which is about marketing (just reread this summer) and Idoru (which you might enjoy since a rock star marrying an AI is part of the story). His last book, The Peripheral was a thought-provoking look at our not-so-pleasant near-future.
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, a 1960s SF novel.
Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard. I’ve read most of his novels — there’s too many to list — and this one’s about a pair of 1960s drop outs trying to pull one big job. If you’re a movie fan, Out of Sight with Clooney and J. Lo is the best adaptation of Leonard novel. It’s also J. Lo’s only great movie role, though John Travolta is great in Get Shorty, and you can see Leonard in most of Tarantino’s films.
Y! The Last Man, which is a series of graphic novels about a plague that kills all but one man. He has to deal with women who have to deal with rebuilding the world. It’s awesome.
Most recently, I read All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders and The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupo — highly recommend those. Earlier in the year, I was blown away by Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. I’ve also been rereading Octavia Butler.
I track what I read on a couple of Pinterest boards. This one shows books I’ve read and reread, you’ll notice a fair amount of J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, and Kurt Vonnegut. I can steer you to the best of those if you’re interested.
Ballard, Burroughs, Dick, and Vonnegut were huge influences on my thinking when I was writing fiction. Ballard and Burroughs were masters of description and people making their ways through unreal situations. Dick was one of the most prolific SF writers (Blade Runner, Minority Report were based on his books) and his influence is wide. Vonnegut’s view of the American condition is among the most critical and hilarious.
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.
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.
Only three percent of marketers say they use podcasts as a content marketing tactic, according to the Content Marketing Institute’s Sarah Mitchell.
Among life sciences marketers, the number of podcasts aimed at patients or physicians could probably be counted on both hands. Industry publications such as FierceBiotech, Pharmaceutical Executive and PharmaIQ have embraced the medium as a way of communicating with life sciences professionals but so far no pharmaceutical company that I know of is podcasting.
To learn more about the challenges associated with creating a successful life science-focused podcast, I interviewed David Shifrin, Ph.D., a Nashville-based science communications consultant and host of Science Writing Radio. David started his podcast in 2015 with the mission of helping young scientists improve their communications, writing and scientific careers. Among others, he’s interviewed Ryan Bethancourt, founder of the biotech accelerator IndieBio, science writers John Fleischmann, Allison McCook, and Bill Snyder, and a number of scientists. I sat down with David to discuss his podcast and lessons learned from nearly 30 episodes.
Why did you start Science Writing Radio? SHIFRIN: In graduate school, I was lucky enough to work with a principal investigator who was a great communicator. At conferences I attended I saw that many scientists were challenged in their storytelling. This is probably because as scientists, we are trained to focus on facts. But facts tend to be boring if they are not part of a bigger story. I also noticed that scientists weren’t really trained to communicate to the outside world, to a bigger audience, though this seems to be changing.
Academic jobs are scarce so scientists have to be prepared to enter the private sector. You can’t do that if don’t know how to communicate. I started the podcast as a way of giving back to my community.
What was your biggest challenge in starting the podcast? There were two actually. The first was finding the niche and figuring out what listeners would be interested in. The second was pushing through what Seth Godin calls “the dip,” a setback you can usually overcome with persistence. The idea is that things always start off well and everyone is excited. Inevitably, momentum slows and you have to decide whether that’s because your idea is bad or because you’re in “the dip.” It’s often the latter, so the best thing is to ignore the numbers and keep going.
Every podcaster I’ve spoken with has experienced this situation. We see our download numbers drop after the first few weeks, bottom out for anywhere from weeks to months, then – assuming our product isn’t terrible and we’re making something that informs and entertains – it starts to rise and grow way beyond where it started. Even at 30 episodes I’m still probably in the dip, but it’s worth it when I see that the podcast has been heard in 77 countries to date.
What has been your biggest lesson so far?
SHIFRIN: Focus and simplicity. The rule of one. The fact that you can only focus on one thing, and that every piece of content can only have one focus. So as much as possible, I try to keep each interview focused on one topic, keep each podcast focused on one subject that my audience is interested in.
I’ve also learned – and here I’m breaking the rule of one by giving two lessons – it’s important to experiment, especially with the format. I’ve created a number of episodes that were monologues – for example at the end of 2015 when I spoke about books that influenced me or my recent podcast on elevator pitches. The feedback from my listeners has been positive, so I’ll continue experimenting with formats.
As you near your 30th episode, what has been your biggest surprise?
SHIFRIN: The importance of having something outside of your day job. Most people feel guilty about this but again, going back to grad school, I was lucky to have a PI that not only had outside interests but he encouraged us to have those. So, the podcast is one of the interests I have outside my job. I am also a serious runner and cyclist.
Life sciences companies haven’t embraced podcasting, do you think they should? SHIFRIN: Podcasting has been around for almost a decade but still is really in its infancy as a medium. It’s powerful because it’s one of the few forms of content where a person is in your head. Podcasting has experienced huge growth in the past few years but there will continue to be great opportunities for companies to use the medium creatively — especially when it comes to business-generated content. Very few companies are doing any sort of content marketing that includes audio, so it’s a massive opportunity.
An application that allows users to have a business and a personal number on one device.
It’s surprising, really. That the common problem of enterprise sales people and freelancers who juggle two phones with different numbers hasn’t been resolved before. Mast Mobile is a mobile carrier that solves that neatly. And for salespeople who must log salescalls into a customer relationship management tool, Mast streamlines calling and enables more comprehensive reporting. It also allows them to reset their work-life balance.
According to Lurie, “The traditional [mobile] carriers offer few differentiated services because they are not software companies. This leaves a huge space open for innovation.”
Implications for Life Sciences Marketing?
As a life sciences marketer, I couldn’t help but wonder how a technology like Mast’s could be applied in the biopharmaceutical industry. Perhaps more importantly, how innovation in mobile will serve as one of the transformative forces in healthcare along with digital health and personalized medicine. I’m very closely watching how digital creators are addressing the coming physician shortage, leveraging technology to transform the practice of clinical trials, and how the use of digital tools will transform medicine.
Melvin’s Li’l Scientist Wristwatch had a built-in DNA extractor. Melvin inserted the filthy toenail into his watch and programmed a complete extraction procedure while the Turbo Toilet 2000 chased him back through town…
As Melvin ran screaming, his watch quickly pulverized and sonicated the toenail cells, removed their membrane lipids, proteins and RNA, and purified and isolate a single strand of Mr. Krupp’s DNA.
Captain Underpants is not a name generally associated with biotechnology. Yet, this wildly successful (70 million copies sold worldwide) series of children’s novels may be the first exposure many children have to biotech. Probably, it won’t be their last.
Just a few years ago the idea that kids would interact with biotechnology might have been unthinkable: The costs associated with DNA sequencing and synthesis were astronomical and required expensive equipment and years of training. Practicing biotechnology in the classroom was literally out of reach.
However, with decreases in the cost of sequencing and synthesis outpacing Moore’s Law, and biotechnology and synthetic biology breakthroughs making the news nearly every day, it has become feasible to expose children to biotech practices. Indeed, it is essential they are exposed to and understand technologies that will play a fundamental role in solving many of the challenges the world faces today and tomorrow.
In contrast, kids are already being taught computer programming at younger and younger ages. In fact, seven EU countries including Britain, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece and Lithuania have set up computer programming as a stand-along subject in their primary and middle schools. Programming languages such as Scratch teach their users the same skills that professional programmers use in their jobs.
Unfortunately, until now, this type of hands-on engagement has not existed for biotechnology.
This article considers is how and why small children might be given similar opportunities, as well as the impact of doing so.
Teaching Synthetic Biology in Middle and High Schools
For the past decade, it’s become commonplace for high school students in biology and AP Biology course to use gel electrophoresis to separate DNA, RNA and proteins, and to learn how to add new genetic material to bacterial cells.
Nearly all teachers that teach the basics of genetic engineering use the same materials and teach the same set of experiments every year. Though these experiments introduce important laboratory techniques, they present a narrow range of experimental problems. In most cases, the laboratory experience ends when the experiment does and students are learning techniques rather than the inquiry or creativity that makes the practice of science exciting.
Earlier this year, Natalie Kuldell, Rachel Bernstein, Karen Ingram and Kathryn M. Hart published BioBuilder, a book-length series of open-access, modular, hands-on experiments designed to be easy to incorporate into high school classrooms and laboratories.
BioBuilder was developed at MIT in collaboration with award-winning high school teachers from across the country with the goal of teaching the foundational ideas of synthetic biology, as well as key aspects of biological engineering that researchers are using in their labs today. The aim was to enrich the way that biotechnology is being taught to middle and high school children.
Among the experiments that BioBuilder teaches are how to measure variants of an enzyme-generating genetic circuit, modeling “bacterial photography,” and building living systems that produce purple or green pigment.
The book and the experiments have been well received because are they easy to introduce into a typical high school biology curriculum (with little to no expense) and expose students to synthetic biology by teaching both science skills and the engineering-design process in the context of living systems.
High School and College Students Advance the Field at iGEM
Every year starting in 2004, high school, college and graduate students have competed in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Student teams are given a kit of Lego-like biological parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, work at their own schools over the summer, and design and build biological systems to solve real-world challenges. They compete in 15 tracks that now include art and design, energy labs, environment, health and medicine, and even policy and practice.
In its first year, iGEM attracted five teams of students. This year’s Giant Jamboree took over Boston’s Hynes Convention Center, attracting 260 teams of college and high school students from around the world.
In the past, teams have designed a microbe to detect and kill a fungus that has been destroying the world’s banana supply. The 2015 Grand Prize-winning team from Virgina’s College of William and Mary characterized the variability (or stochasticity) of gene expression for the most commonly used promoters in synthetic biology. Promoter regions of DNA initiate the first step of turning genomic information into proteins.
The most successful teams have even gone on to start companies based on their ideas. Among them, Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based microorganism engineering company, competed in the first iGEM and recently raised nearly $50 million.
In a 2014 New Yorker article on iGEM, co-organizer Randy Rettberg commented, “We used to say we just needed to educate people about the science… We said that if they understood it, they would accept it… [but] to create an environment where [these] students can live this future, what we really need to do is involve people.”
In a survey undertaken by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agriculture, it was found that as many as 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” about the same number as support mandatory labelling of FMO foods “produced with genetic engineering.” This fundamental misunderstanding of DNA reflected a general lack of understanding of basic science. Giving children the opportunity to learn about biotechnology sooner can only be a good thing.
It’s been a while, a long while, since I’ve posted anything music related, so I offer up a contrast of sorts.
Here’s Cabaret Volataire‘s brilliant Nag Nag Nag from their 1980 Live at the YMCA album. Simple distorted guitars, bristling synthesizer electronics, this was early – but still danceable – industrial music no doubt inspired by the Cold War and Sheffield*’s urban decay.
Some 30 years later, Montreal’s Akufen remixes the song and aptly titles it the Karaoke Slam remix. When I email him to compliment him on the mix, Marc LeClair answers “musics just getting crazier and crazier.” Not sure I agree with his sentiment but I love the remix.
This week, a group of artists, designers, and scientists will gather in New York City for the second annual Biofabricate conference.
They’ll be discussing the use of biological organisms to create new materials and transform manufacturing.
You might think a conference like this would attract only scientists, but surprisingly it is the often artists and designers in attendance who are pushing the limits of biotechnology.
I attended last year’s conference and asked Suzanne Lee, Biofabricate’s organizer, what would be different this year. Here is her preview:
“For one, we’re helping people think beyond 3-D printing with the use of living cells as substrates to build novel materials and systems,” said Lee. “For example, one of our presenting companies, BioBots, has developed a desktop bioprinter that can build three-dimensional living tissues from human cells. One hundred research institutions around the globe purchased that printer, but so did an art school. I believe that combination of scientists and artists-designers working separately and together are driving innovation in biofabrication.”
Pembient’s cultured rhino horns and elephant tusks aim to decrease illegal wildlife poaching – a $20 billion black market.
“We’ll also be looking at how engineered biology has the potential to replace animal products,” continued Lee. “Egg, milk, and meat produced in cell culture are less resource heavy and more sustainable, and Pembient’s cultured rhino horns and elephant tusks aim to stop illegal poaching.”
I’m looking forward to hearing more this week about our progress in using biology to advance materials science and manufacturing. Check back for my report next week.
It’s 2044, the world’s a dystopian mess and people escape to, learn, live and work in a virtual world called OASIS (the followup to William Gibson’s cyberspace and Neal Stephenson’s metaverse).
At the start of the book, videogame designer James Halliday, the ultimate 1980s geek, leaves his vast fortune to the person who can find three magical keys (Easter eggs) hidden in the vast OASIS.
Enter one Wade Watts, an 18-year old living in the Oklahoma City “stacks” of trailers upon trailers left behind by people migrating to the cities. Compared to the other egg hunters (“gunters”), the poverty-born Wade is at a disadvantage and can’t travel OASIS. But what he lacks in finances he more than makes up in his knowledge of 1980s pop culture, and videogames skills. As a result, he finds the first key and starts the race that will continue until all three keys are discovered.
The quest is a blast. There are allies and enemies, a romance and an overload of 1980s nostalgia. I read it laughing aloud along the way, handed it to my son Alejandro, who enjoyed it, then I reread it. It’s a total blast.
At the beginning of the week, the Founder swore he’d have me back on payroll by the end of the month. It’d been six weeks since any of us had been paid.
“What about the options?” I asked.
“I’ll take care of those by the end of the week,” he answered. It was the same answer I’d heard every month for a year – the length of time I’d been working there.
That whole week, my other co-workers were in a bad mood and nothing seemed to go right. It wasn’t one thing that had put us in a bad mood – it was a series of little things: The tone of voice the founder took when asking about a client, how he disappeared from the office for a week, how he wouldn’t return phone calls.
Yet I continued to hold out. We continued to hold out. Just a few months earlier, we had all believed in the company we were building. We believed in the founder and we would have followed him into any battle.
My hand, my right hand – my writing hand – was sore and bothering me. Every little thing pissed me off and I was yelling at my kids and my wife all the time.
The next day, the CFO called, “There’s something I need to tell you… I feel super shitty about this but every other week I have to release the funds.”
“The funds to pay the president. The president is still getting paid.” The CFO told me he’d had a conversation with the Founder who admitted he had to continue to pay the President so he wouldn’t get distracted.
“Distracted from what?” I asked. “Isn’t a startup CEO, a startup president supposed to feel the same pain as his team?”
“You know the founder hasn’t taken a salary in years. He hadn’t paid his mortgage until the investors stepped in. They almost turned off his lights.”
I was sitting alone in the conference room. The President, the one guy who was getting paid in the company, was down the hall in a shared office. Presumably on the phone.
I felt my stomach rise into my mouth. I no longer felt comfortable there.
“I can’t talk about this any more,” I told the CFO. I hung up and left.
I almost vomited in the elevator down.
I took the subway home, tasting my sour stomach the whole way, praying I wouldn’t become one of those people that vomited and caused a medical emergency shutting down the entire Brooklyn-bound F-train line. I had a sense that drowning in alcohol might help but my stomach was so wrecked I knew it would only make things worse. No matter how much I imagined I’d drink I knew alcohol couldn’t drown away the anger and erase the disappointment.
When I got home, Alejandro was there to greet me. I mentioned that my hands and stomach were hurting because of the stress.
“How is that even possible?” he asked. Only an innocent fourteen-year could ask such a question.
I explained that stress can manifest in your body, that you can feel the fight that happened before you walked into a room. At that moment, the stress was manifest in my stomach and the part of my body I used to make my living. He looked at me like I was crazy and I realized that I was but didn’t have to be.