Open Maker Labs — A thought for the future

Article by: Tobi Ogunnaike

Something remarkable is going on right now.

Across the sciences, there’s a tremendous movement to make the power of invention accessible to everyone. To push science and engineering beyond the walls of academia, institutions and large engineering firms and into the public realm. Products like The Raspberry Pithe ArduinoLittle Bits and Sam Labsare pioneering open-source, fun and cheap prototyping with electronics and hardware hacking. For many project ideas, there’s absolutely no need for wires, no soldering and no coding required.

This isn’t an airy-fairy fantasy. Case in point: Around 95% of our world’s oceans remain unexplored and unseen. That’s a pretty big problem that needs solving. Enter, OpenROV. It’s an open-source, low-cost robot for underwater exploration built and supported by a community of professional and amateur ocean explorers.

That’s impressive but there’s more to this movement.

In the biotech and bioengineering world, there’s been a similar push. Startups like Amino Bio and BentoLab are developing portable, laptop-sized mini-labs equipped for real science like DNA sequencing and culturing friendly microbes to produce useful products. Again, making science more inviting and more engaging.

“The Amino One is our first product, a laptop-sized platform that enables anyone to grow living cells to create new and interesting things — like fragrances, flavours, materials, medicine, and more.” — Amino Bio
Bento Lab is a DNA analysis laboratory. With Bento Lab, you can take a biological sample, extract its DNA, and conduct a simple genetic analysis. — Bento Bio

Take a moment to visualize the possibilities.

It feels like a paradigm shift. Shifting us from passive consumers of technology to active creators. From docile users to tinkerers. From submissive consumers to inventors. Perhaps changing the average person’s view of technology — from seeing tech as benign and consumable blackboxes to a medium for ingenious experimentation.

Of course, all this needs to be done in a safe, ethical and responsible way. The mention of the phrases “synthetic biology” and “genetic engineering” conjures up cynical images of bioterrorism and supposedly deadly GMOs. We need to dispel our prejudiced, emotional bias against synthetic biology in favour of a logical, scientific, case-by-case evaluation of risk — some risks will be acceptable, and others not so. Nevertheless, there are microbes that are widely considered to be safe — the yeast and bacteria that have been engineered to make insulin for millions of diabetics since the 1970s. We should continue to safely tinker with these to produce food, drink, cosmetics, fuels and drugs.

We’re democratizing access to electronics. Lowering the barrier to hardware hacking. Teaching kids to code. Offering cheap, safe, all-in-one kits for synthetic biology. Overall, we’re reducing the barrier to invention, and inspiring creativity in those disciplines.

But what about other scientific disciplines?

Chemical engineering — left in the shadows?

Chemical engineering is too distant, too complex, too boring and too irrelevant for the average person.

Which is pretty ironic when you consider how much we all depend on chemical engineering.

A world without chemical engineering is a world without plentiful and abundant antibiotics, fertilizers, fuels and semiconductor chips. No antibiotics means no medical surgeries. No fertilizers equals famine. No cheaply available fuels means no transport. No semiconductor chips, no smartphones.

Chocolate. Alcohol. Cosmetics. Medicines. Purified Water. Toothpaste. Detergent. Deodorant. Paper. Sugar. Petrol/Gasoline. Diesel. Electricity. Lubricants.

This is by no-means an exhaustive list; but chemical engineering is required in the production of these and many more.

So why does-this matter?

Chemical engineering is uniquely positioned to tackle some of the greatest challenges in nutrition, energy, biotech and pharma.

But it’s not inviting.

It’s not as sexy as computer science. Kids today can tinker with software and electronics before they hit puberty. You can play with an Arduino, a software developer kit or a LittleBits Kit. But chemical engineering? The barrier is too high. You can’t buy a refinery unless you have millions of dollars. Can’t buy a centrifuge, can’t buy a reactor, can’t buy anything really useful. Even if you could, these equipment are too dangerous in their current form to be used at home. But that shouldn’t be an excuse. Bioreactors aren’t exactly teddybears, yet AminoLabs has found a way to include one in their kit. Ingenious design could ensure both safety and experimentation without compromise.

Let’s say, while tinkering with my Amino Bio version 3, I manage to grow enough yeast to produce significant quantities of an anti-cancer compound. That’s great.

But I’ve only made milligrams.

To scale up from milligrams to kilograms, you need chemical engineering. You need process scale up and pilot studies. Beyond that, you need to make sure your microbes will grow as fast in a bigger vessel. You need to make sure any ethanol produced doesn’t kill your all yeast. You need to tinker.

But how do you tinker with chem eng in a safefun and inviting way?

Right now, you can’t.

My proposal

Build an AminoLabs or BentoLabs kit for chemical engineering.

It has to be safe, fun, modular, small, and interactive. It can’t cost more than $1000. It should be useful — for prototyping or process optimization.

Chemical engineers love to break difficult design problems into distinct solvable sections. Well, this is a design problem.

You choose the setup. You can go the ‘lab-on-a-chip’ route — build a device that has little channels for very tiny volumes of liquid. Hook that up with reagents, pumps, valves and electronics for diagnostics. Or you can build a bigger system — a mini-bioreactor, measurement systems for temperature, pH and conductivity, and say, a miniaturised distillation kit.

Whatever you do, make it safe, fun and interesting. I can’t stress that enough.

Distill the bulky, expensive lab equipment into a portable, mini-lab. And excuse that awful pun.

Inside SU’s First Salon: Lab-Grown Organs, Cybersecurity, and AI Music Apps

“We will find new things everywhere we look.” –Hunter S. Thompson

At the rate of 21st century technological innovation, each year brings new breakthroughs across industries. Advances in quantum computers, human genome sequencing for under $1,000lab-grown meatharnessing our body’s microbes as drugs, and bionic eye implants that give vision to the blind—the list is long.

As new technologies push the boundaries of their respective industries, fields are now maturing, growing, and colliding with one another. This cross-pollination of ideas across industries and countries has changed the world—and will continue to—and it’s one of the reasons Singularity University exists.

The first SU Salon, a gathering for professionals of varying backgrounds but common interest in innovation, recently took place at our campus in Silicon Valley.

The event featured three speakers from distinct sectors—biotech, cybersecurity, and music—and was an open forum to connect with local technologists, innovators, and most importantly, to cross-pollinate ideas.

If you weren’t able to make it, below is a glimpse into each speaker's presentation.

Ryan Bethencourt: The future of biotech

Program Director and Venture Partner at IndieBio

“Our world is built on biology and once we begin to understand it, it then becomes a technology.  –Ryan Bethencourt

When most people hear the word biotech they think of syringes, new cancer treatments, and cutting-edge disease therapies. Though this is biotech, it’s just one vertical.

Ryan Bethencourt, a biohacker, entrepreneur, and program director and venture partner of biology accelerator IndieBio, spoke about four primary areas of acceleration in biotech—food, biomaterials, computation, and medicine.

Bethencourt broke down how biology is being applied as a technology in each of these areas and highlighted companies to keep an eye on:

  • Food: Impossible Foodsmaking real burgers that bleed from plant cells. The company recently turned down an acquisition offer from Google for $200 million, so stay tuned.
  • BiomaterialsBolt Threadsbrewing spider silk in yeast and turning it into an outstandingly durable material with applications in the industrial space. The company recently raised roughly $40 million in funds.
  • ComputationKonikupioneering neuron-powered computation by harnessing the power of biological neurons to create the next generation of supercomputers.
  • Medicine: Organogenesis Inc.—developing regenerative medicine such as bioactive wound healing and soft tissue regeneration. Next up in this industry may be the ability to build human organs like lungs and hearts.

Siobhan MacDermott: The state of cybersecurity

Principal of Risk and Cybersecurity at Ernst & Young

“[Though] many people in DC know little about Internet security and privacy…[they] are the ones trying to reform it.” -Siobhan MacDermott

When Siobhan MacDermott began working in the field of cybersecurity in the 1990s, companies across the board could not grasp why they needed Internet security software. It seemed foolish and unreasonable. Jump forward to 2016, and the need is clear. It’s projected there will be one million unfilled cybersecurity related jobs in 2020, if we continue at the current rate of education for this field.

MacDermott is one of the foremost experts on the future cybersecurity and privacy and is principal of risk and cybersecurity at Ernst & Young where she coaches Fortune 100 companies, NGOs, and the government on best practices and strategies for Internet security. She is also the vice chair at the Fund for Peace.

In her talk, MacDermott explored pressing cybersecurity issues such as how to balance surveillance and privacy—a subject gaining global attention, and also one that has been front-and-center in recent US presidential debates.

MacDermott highlighted how, at the diplomatic level, the exchange and security of information is under mass scrutiny, and pointed to additional players, such as “hacktivist” groups like Anonymous, and campaign-aligned corporations.

Tamer Rashad: Democratizing music

Founder and CEO of Humtap

Music, according to Tamer Rashad, founder and CEO of Humtap, allows communities and cultures to transcend traditional boundaries of communication. But it’s expensive to produce high-quality music, and the industry is dominated by three major music labels.

Rashad said Humtap wants to democratize music creation with new technologies such as AI and machine learning to open music production to the masses.

Silicon Valley's biotech firms: 'Theranos gave us a black eye'

Despite signs of crisis among science startups, many still think that biotech will create companies so powerful that they will ‘win’ the 21st century

 Attendees browse at IndieBio’s demo day in San Francisco. Photograph: IndieBio

 Attendees browse at IndieBio’s demo day in San Francisco. Photograph: IndieBio

It was noon on a Thursday at a gathering of science startups in San Francisco. The public market for biotechnology stock had dropped 25% in two months. The private sector’s star startup, Theranos, valued at $9bn, has begun to implode. The most popular food tech startup, Hampton Creek, which is trying to reinvent mayonnaise, has reportedly stretched the truth of their science.

And yet there was no sign of trouble on that sunny afternoon.

“The fourth industrial revolution is happening right now, right here,” the IndieBio incubator program director Ryan Bethencourt said, gesturing toward his startups. That day, IndieBio’s 14 startups, which had each received $250,000 in funding, were hoping to raise millions more.

How do tech investors, who are often just guys from Stanford University’s Sigma Nu fraternity with little science background (“crossover investors”, as Bethencourt calls them) get sold on investing into biotech startups and how smart is their money? Last year was the biggest ever for venture capital funding into the biotech sector with over $7.4bn invested, according to a report from MoneyTree, but this year is looking to be much more difficult.

A bouncer on the sidewalk let attendees pass into the cavernous rustic wood and copper refurbished warehouse, full of gold balloons and orchids.

I’m one of the only people in the world that’s eaten a dinosaur

Gupta, founder of IndieBio

 Arvind Gupta, founder of IndieBio Photograph: Michael O'Donnell

 Arvind Gupta, founder of IndieBio Photograph: Michael O'Donnell

In the warehouse, Bethencourt stood by a red velvet rope set up in the middle of the room. It separated those 400 attendees from the startup founders, who hawked their technology – engineered shrimp replacement and cheaper cell assay technologies – to the VIPs. Bethencourt nodded at a bouncer to unclasp the rope as people came toward him: “He can get in, yeah you’re good” or “Hey, sorry guys.”

“It sucks Theranos has given us a black eye,” Arvind Gupta said. “But who gives a shit? The truth is still: whoever wins in biology wins the 21st century.”

Gupta, wearing tennis shoes with a plant pattern, started talking about his companies, a set of futuristic, ambitious startups that each waver on that knife edge between real and imaginary.

“Today, you’re going to see someone present for the first time ever a cure for cancer – I almost can’t say it,” Gupta said, covering his mouth. “These aren’t apps to help you buy wine without leaving your couch.”

“We’re not even gonna talk about it, but I’m one of the only people in the world that’s eaten a dinosaur,” Gupta said, of his startup Gelzen that recreates animal protein in gummy form. “We can’t even talk about it here because it’s too far out there.”

Investors took their seats. Gupta, whose title “the architect” flashes on screen, starts: “Biology is the most powerful technology ever created. DNA is software, protein are hardware, cells are factories. The world has a huge number of trillion-dollar problems wanting to be solved and biology is the only way to do that.”

Bethencourt goes by “hustler in chief”. The words “speed is safety” flash on the screen.

The dinosaur protein gummy bear maker stands on stage: “Evolution is a constraint,” he says, holding a gummy bear aloft.

Another presenter says he’s reprogramming cancer to die: “It’s like blowing up the death star from the inside. This may sound like science fiction, but in the last few weeks, we’ve made it science fact!”

A woman presents a fake shrimp made from plant material and of which a chef at Google has already ordered 200lb. “Our shrimp outperforms its ocean counterpart,” she said. “We de-risk the supply chain.”

The audience, a few drinks in by 2pm, started getting rowdy. One of the bouncers had to kick someone out, and he went stumbling through the crowd toward the door.

IndieBio Demo Day. Photograph: IndieBio

IndieBio Demo Day. Photograph: IndieBio

A pasta company consultant, Andrew Pederson, was on assignment for Barilla Foods. “Look around,” he said. “Who’s in food and agriculture here? Who’s in medicine? Who has the expertise to make any judgments about these companies?”


Food and agriculture is new and unfamiliar, so it’s appealing Pederson said, especially as the app economy seems overblown and overvalued. “They’re right this space is gonna grow. It’s going to be huge,” he said. “But look at this party. I’ve never seen anything like it. So many people in this room are gonna get hosed.”

Rohit Sharma, a venture capitalist with True Ventures, thinks biotech is safer for investing than the rest of the tech industry right now. “In biotech, we’re not in the same up and down cadence as the rest of the industries. Companies are more aware of the longevity of their endeavor in biotech,” Sharma said. “And behind each cycle of computing there’s a bump in biotech, which is just starting now.”

A few days later, at the IndieBio headquarters, Bethencourt, who previously made a name for himself as a body hacker bent on fusing his body with technology, led a tour of the lab. “We build companies out of the valley of death,” Bethencourt said. “That’s what we do in biotech. That’s what we’ll do if it all crashes.”

For good measure, he added one of the catchphrases: “What other people call impossible, we call inevitable.”

Gupta agreed. “Hype tends to precede the reality in biotech, but the reality does follow,” he said.



With $44 Million In Funding, Biotech Startup Zymergen Is Buying Up Robots To Mass Produce Materials From Microbes

The mostly under-the-radar biotech startup Zymergen has gone about making microbial DNA manipulating robots for the last couple of years. It has now raised a total of $44 million to use these microbes to manufacture chemicals and new materials for various large industries.

Zymergen had raised an undisclosed $2 million seed near the time of its founding in 2013. It has just closed another $42 million in Series A funding, led by Data Collective. AME Cloud Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, HVF, Innovation Endeavors, Obvious Ventures, True Ventures and Two Sigma Ventures also participated in the round, bringing up the funding total to $44 million.

There have been a lot of companies getting in on the bio lab automation act in the last couple of years. Transcriptic, a Bay Area-based lab automation startup with a focus on drug testing does this, as does Bolt Threads, a startup we recently wrote about that nabbed a similar amount of funding to make spider silk from bacteria. Ginko Bioworks, a biotech startup out of Boston with a focus on manipulating yeast DNA to make fragrances uses automation as well.

photography by Albert Law:

photography by Albert Law:

What’s unique about Zymergen is that it moves beyond the testing phase and into the manufacturing phase. “A lot of lab automation is built with [testing] in mind. What we do that is unusual and as far as we know we’re the only people in the world to do it is we use robots to assemble all the DNA, put it together, stick it across the cell membrane and into the bug itself and then it integrates, ” Zymergen CEO Josh Hoffman said.

This can seem like your standard DNA insertion into bacteria – a technology that has been used for nearly two decades and a common practice to almost every biotech company. However, Zymergen promises to do this for everything from smells and flavors to pharmaceutical and industrial manufacturing, using automation. We should note that Novozymes, a biotech company, with over $1 billion in revenue, also uses this process for many different industries.

But, for now, this is a nuanced business. “What Zymergen is doing is not unique, but very important,” IndieBio partner and a long-time expert in the bio lab field Ryan Bethencourt said. “It’s the combination of Darwinian selection of genetically engineered microbes, plus machine learning, analysis and automation that is unique. Zymergen has the potential to become the Google of strain optimization.”

photography by Albert Law:

photography by Albert Law:

Scientific discovery isn’t the block to mass production for most startups in the biotech field; data and computation are, according to Hoffman. “It’s amazing to know that we can harness activities at a cellular level to churn out the raw materials we use in our everyday lives. And yet the progress in this field has been flow and disappointing, because companies have been constrained, pursuing inefficient approaches,” said Hoffman.

Zymergen has created custom software and robotics to grow and manipulate many generations of microbes in a faster, more concise manner, thus driving down costs and speeding up production. This approach is what attracted the investment of Nan Li from Obvious Ventures, who thinks of Zymergen as more of a data and machine learning startup than biotech.

“It’s purely a data product,” Li told TechCrunch. “And with robotics it can move forth evolution that can make this process better.”

While neither Li nor Hoffman were willing to disclose on-the-record the partners that Zymergen is currently working with to produce materials, it does have some recognizable names backing heavy production. The big bump in Series A funding had a lot to do with the good traction so far, according to Li.

Posted Jun 16, 2015 by Sarah Buhr (@sarahbuhr)


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