Egg Whites, Rhino Horns, And Stem Cells: IndieBio's Plan To Bioengineer A Better World

Synthetic biology is advancing faster and more cheaply than ever before—and now many startups are getting swept up in that promise.

I was about to pick up my cell phone when I realized I still had rhino horn lotion all over my hands. It wouldn't come off. The lotion was surprisingly thick and creamy, and when I brought it to my nose it smelled faintly of a musty old couch. Once I finally gathered enough tissues to wipe the lotion off, I realized that my hands were noticeably softer. No rhinos were harmed in the process of softening my hands, however.

I was checking out IndieBio, a new biotech accelerator in San Francisco where early-stage biotech ventures get mentorship, access to lab space, and seed funding. When I visited out the space, IndieBio had been open for just two weeks, but was already buzzing with scientists working on projects that sound like they're straight out of Silicon Valley's collective vision of an ideal future. Everything a science-based startup might want is available in the space, from basic biotech lab equipment (centrifuges and lots of machines with three-letter names) to a cell culture area and a designated hardware room.

"We want everyone who comes through to feel more entrepreneurial and start companies, even if they fail," says Arvind Gupta, co-founder of IndieBio and partner at SOS Ventures. The hope is that IndieBio's support can allow biotech entrepreneurs to flourish without feeling the need to work inside university or big corporate infrastructures.

When Gupta and his co-founder Ryan Bethencourt—a former senior director of prize development at XPRIZE—talk about the accelerator, they tend to describe it in terms of how it could lead to solutions that provide planetary peace and longer, healthier lives for us all—salvation through science, essentially.

"We don't want to end up in a class war. We want everyone to have food, clean water, and a long life expectancy," says Gupta.

Taking a tour of the lab, it's not hard to get swept up in the promise of the startups within, many of which are working on synthetic biology projects that are only now possible because of advances in the field that have made biotech equipment cheaper and faster than ever before.

The startups in IndieBio are all working on big-picture issues. Pembient, the company that concocted my rhino horn lotion, wants to fight animal poaching by creating synthetic versions of the items that poachers want—starting with rhino horns. In South Africa alone, 1,215 rhinos were poached in 2014, causing the world to lose 4% of the total rhino population. Part of the problem is that rhino horns are used as traditional medicine (for reducing fevers, among other things) in parts of Asia.

Pembient's first prototype product is a powder that's genetically identical to real rhino horn. Next, the startup wants to create a full 3-D printed horn, using the powder as a substrate. "Right now, we're taking the biochemical approach, but we're technologically agnostic. Maybe in the future we'll do tissue engineering. Whatever works for the market," says co-founder George Bonaci. Eventually, Pembient plans to work on other in-demand animal products.

Sitting alongside Pembient in the lab is Clara Foods, a company taking a somewhat similar approach to a different issue: the unsustainable and cruel nature of factory farms. Instead of manufacturing rhino horns, Clara Foods is making lab-grown egg whites. "We pick each other's brains. It's probably the mostly helpful thing here, that everybody shares," says cofounder Arturo Elizondo.

By producing egg whites in the lab, Clara hopes to create more affordable and consistent egg whites that are salmonella-free. Plus, no factory farms are necessary.

The co-founders, who met at a food tech conference, are working on a proof of concept, reconstituting the egg white's main proteins in the lab. "We're far along on paper. The hard part is making sure it tastes exactly like an egg white," says Elizondo. "We want to produce a product identical in terms of culinary properties. There's a chef downstairs in the building that wants to bake with it."

By the end of their 100-day stay at IndieBio, the Clara Foods founders want to prove that they can reconstitute an egg white in yeast, and get the taste right, too.

Nearly everyone in the accelerator is bioengineering something that was once unsustainable or impractical, it seems. A startup called Bioloop is genetically engineering bacteria to overproduce cellulose and bioplastic, all to create sustainable textiles that don't require acres of lands and loads of pesticides. "We want to give people what they want, and push the bad things out of the equation," says cofounder Jennifer Kaehms.

Then there are all the medical biotech startups. They include Orphidia, which is creating a "lab on a chip" to diagnose dozens of diseases with a single drop of blood; Extem, a startup that has come up with a way to mass produce stem cells in much larger quantities than are currently available; and Affinity, which aims to bring down the cost of developing new biopharmaceutical drugs.

These are ambitious projects, and IndieBio is going to eventually need a bigger space (the current space is very cozy) . Soon, the accelerator plans to open a 15,000-square-foot space downtown. In addition to the San Francisco accelerator, IndieBio also runs a sister program in Cork, Ireland.

"The goal here is to triple the lifespan of human beings. We can't have triple the natural resources, so we need to be more efficient," says Gupta.


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Uber’s recent announcement that they’ll be setting up their headquarters in Oakland’s booming Uptown neighborhood has created much speculation. Oakland isn’t now just the “Brooklyn of the West,” a haven for hipsters, designers, Burners and those priced out of San Francisco. It’s about to become a tech mecca.

The Twitterverse exploded in protest. Tech and Uber employees in Oakland? No, no, no! The city is ours, not theirs!

I’m a newish transplant to Oakland. I moved here about four years ago, inspired by what friends told me, which is that Oakland is different; it isn’t SF; it has its own culture and flavor; and it is diverse. A few people in Mountain View / Silicon Valley told me I’d get shot as soon as I stepped into downtown Oakland, but that misinformed opinion was based on the media’s twisted portrayal of this amazing city. From the moment I parked in Oakland’s Chinatown, I couldn’t believe how vibrant the city actually was.

I’d turned up looking for a place that felt like home—the bland, suburban office parks of Silicon Valley just didn’t cut it for me. I’m a biotech guy (not tech). I love art, the maker movement, diversity and creatives. It also didn’t hurt that Tupac and Too Short (two of my favorite rappers) are from Oakland and that the weather is way better than it is in San Francisco. Oakland has edge, and its multicultural style is part of what appealed to me.

Over the last four years, I’ve seen Oakland evolve rapidly. I’ve seen entire neighborhoods, like Temescal, become hipster enclaves with corresponding price hikes (a 12% rental-price increase over the last two years as artists and others flooded into Oakland). But that paled in comparison to the price increases in my old neighborhood, Adams Point, where apartment prices roughly doubled in three years while old abandoned storefronts in Uptown quickly filled with tons of new restaurants. To me, it’s no wonder that the San Francisco Bay’s iconic Sunset Magazine moved from Menlo Park in Silicon Valley up to Oakland. Oakland is at the heart of some of the most exciting trends and innovations coming out of the West, and they wanted to be part of it. It now feels like the entire Bay Area has woken up to the gem that’s always been there.

Oakland is a city full of like-minded people driven by passion to create a better world. People here have a can-do attitude, and they know that we have to build and fight for the future we want; otherwise, it won’t happen. That is why tech will have a different impact here than it has had in San Francisco.

A little background on why I believe this to be the case: three years ago, I cofounded the nonprofit Sudo Room with a group of 25 like-minded people looking to build a hacker space with a mission of radical inclusion (originally, it was right next to Uber’s new headquarters). We were just a bunch of passionate people looking to build a supportive and empowering community, and we quickly noticed how this vision resonated with others nationwide.

Word started to spread, and Sudo Room started to attract other nonprofits. After a while, five of us cofounded Counter Culture Labs (a bio-hacker space in Oakland, and the first in the East Bay). Both organizations grew, eventually evolving into the Omni Commons, a collective of collectives that focused on community, positive creation and radical inclusion. This is the Oakland community I love and cherish, alongside other makers and groups like American Steel Studios, the Crucible, NIMBY and others.

So now we face a new challenge: capital-“T” tech has arrived, and Uber is leading the charge. My Oakland-based friends, including hackers, creatives, anarchists, LGBT folks and activists who are people of color, worry that tech will displace all those who have found a home and creative refuge in Oakland. But I don’t think that will happen. Oakland isn’t Silicon Valley or San Francisco. Oakland is the historic birthplace of the Black Panthers; it has the highest per capita concentration of artists in the US; it was ranked as the number-one most exciting city in the US in 2013; and it cares deeply about diversity and inclusion. Oakland’s emerging tech scene reflects all of that. Oakland is home to Black Girls Code, the Hidden Genius Project, the Unity Council (which provides community advocacy, social services and economic development to the historically Hispanic region of Fruitvale), the Kapor Foundation (which supports STEM education for under-represented minorities) and many more groups and companies that support social inclusion. Oakland still has plenty of issues, but tech can help lift all boats if the right on-ramps are in place.

A couple of months back, I met with Mayor Libby Schaaf and her team to discuss how we could continue to help accelerate the resources available to the local Oakland community for STEM education and economic opportunities. Her words still ring in my mind today: Uber is moving to Oakland, and that’s a good thing, but Oakland is also moving into Uber and might just give it the heart and soul we all hope to see. 

Tech might change Oakland, but Oakland will change tech. That, you can count on. 

Photo courtesy of chucka_nc.


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NERD Skincare Receives $1M Funding for Science-Based Beauty

NERD Skincare, a team that’s currently participating in SOSV’s synthetic biology accelerator IndieBio, recently received $1M funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology in Taiwan to further accelerate their company.

“I feel great that we’ll be able to invest a lot more into research,” says Evelyn Chen, NERD’s founder and CEO. Chen and the team have also been working to clarify the company’s vision.

“We want to bring real science to beauty, from microbiology to nanotechnology. Now we are tapping into the science of the microbiome, and with that we’ll be able to create 21st-Century beauty products, “ says Chen. Microbiomes are highly localized ecosystems in a particular environment, like an individual’s face, for example.

“With our technology, we can build an in-house sequencing machine that will allow us to collect skin microbiome profiles from our customers. Then we’ll be able to let our customers monitor the difference before and after they use our products,” explains Chen.

Ryan Bethencourt, program director at IndieBio SF, first connected NERD Skincare with the Taiwan Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. Since a member of NERD’s team is Taiwanese, he suggested they apply for the funding, and they won first place.

“Evelyn’s focus as a bioengineer was to bring real science to beauty, and she’s achieved that with her first two products: microbially-grown beauty masks and her soon-to-be-launched nanoparticle line,” says Bethencourt. “I’m most excited about the real science she’s bringing to understanding the microbiome of the skin and face, which I think will revolutionize our view of the value of cosmetics, beyond just beauty into a deeper understanding of skin health.”

NERD Skincare will be finishing up their run at IndieBio in February.

“Our experience at IndieBio has been invaluable,” says Chen. The advisors like Ryan, Arvind, Ron and Mat, really helped me clear my mind. Now we see a very clear path of what we want to do and where we want to go.

“It’s so good to have a coworking lab space with all the smartest scientists in the same room. We can exchange crazy ideas, and sometimes those ideas are very practical and useful. For example, Devon Cayer, the co-founder of MYi, is going to be our mentor and help us set up hardware.”

The personal connections made by NERD Skincare have proven to pay off, and now with an added $1M in their pocket, the company’s future is looking bright, and clear.


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The Philippines as an Emerging Biotech Cluster

As President Obama arrived in the Philippines for the APEC summit, I was reminded of my recent trip to Manila, which left me thinking about global megacities and the future of biotechnology.

In the Philippines, these ideas emerged during my visit to the Global Forum 2015 conference in August, which was hosted by middle and low income countries, for and by them. After attending many of the talks (and giving two), I was really impressed with the strides that many emerging countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa had made, especially the Philippines, in science and technology.

I was delighted to have had the opportunity to meet with the Secretary for Science and Technology,Secretary Montejo, and his team during my visit and it became clear that the Philippines has a huge capacity for bio-innovation and a real hunger to develop their biotech industry, which was music to a biotech entrepreneur and investor’s ears!

During my trip, I visited the University of the Philippines and I was impressed with the quality of the students and the science during their first biotech startup pitch night which reimagined biotech suited for Asian markets. I talked with a few of my long time friends who had moved back, Rey Garcia and Maoi Arroyo and they were incredibly passionate about continuing to support the emerging and homegrown biotech industry which they’d helped build.

There were many exciting insights during my visit but I thought I’d highlight a few, which were new to me and I think will not only continue to fuel the Philippines incredible turnaround from the “sick man of Asia” to it’s new tiger economy status with 6% GDP growth, but also make it a powerhouse in biotech and healthcare:


Previously, world famous for exporting doctors, nurses and other health professionals, the Philippines has made a concerted effort not just to retain their talented medical professionals but to expand healthcare coverage with the majority of it’s population covered through a range of private, public andBarangay health centers (a type of rural health center). However point of care is mostly given by private health providers; the aim is for 100% coverage, which means the need to build an effective healthcare system for 100+ million people from the ground up.


The Philippines relies heavily on the agricultural sector which is divided into: farming, fisheries, livestock and forestry making up 20% of the country’s gross domestic product. In 2012, the government increased the agriculture and agrarian reform budgets by over 50% to boost food production, allocated funding for irrigation, farm-to-market roads and passed the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernisation Act of the Philippines which encourages private sector to invest in new technologies which have paid dividends.

One of the largest opportunities lies in agricultural biotech, in the development of high-yielding crops, pest-resistant, as well as flood & drought-resistant grains and vegetables with the government embracing a pro-business and pro-GMO stance matched with government research funding.

Positive Biotech Regulations

The Philippines is the first ASEAN country to initiate a biotechnology regulatory system by establishing the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP), which has become a model for member-countries of the ASEAN seeking to become producers of agricultural biotechnology crops.

The Philippines started its biotechnology programs in 1980 with the formal creation of the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (BIOTECH) at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB). In 1995, three other biotechnology institutes were established within the University of the Philippines (UP) System.

They are located in:

  • UP Diliman campus which focuses on industrial biotechnology,
  • UP Manila which focuses on human health,
  • UP  which focuses on marine biotech.

Increased Investment in R&D

There is no doubt that biotechnology has helped boost agricultural sector of the Philippines” – Dr. Reynaldo V. Ebora, director of National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (BIOTECH) at the University of the Philippines Los Baños.

Conventional biotech bio-fertilizers and Bt have helped farmers increased their yields dramatically and helped the Philippines achieve self sufficiency for corn and the government is investing heavily in genomics at the University of the Philippines for both agriculture improvements to high value crops like sugarcane and also when applied to human health. Outside of some initial legal challenges to the use of GMO crops, the government and people of the Philippines have embraced new farming technologies which include engineered crops.

An Economic growth Engine

The Philippines has emerged as one of the world’s largest centers for business process outsourcing which is setting the stage for the next evolution of the work force, from financial stability to startup risk taking, increasing the pool of startups in major cities like Cebu and Manila (a mega city of 20+ million).

The Philippines with over 100m+ people, a young, well educated, english speaking workforce, that’s currently booming, with a target 6% GDP growth rate for 2015, seems set to continue in its upward trajectory. Expect to see a lot more startups and a couple of emerging biotechs, you never know, a few might be funded by IndieBio!

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Craig Venter and the unknown 50 genes of life

Last Friday, I attended an event in Berkeley which was part of the Bay Area Science Festival, Craig Venter spoke as part of a promotional tour for his new book “Life at the Speed of Light” and it was a fascinating talk, another blog post will follow with a write up to the talk and his response to my question to him about Biotech Moonshots. As some of you know, I’ve become convinced that Venter is one of the few scientists in our industry focused going for Biotech moon shoots akin to Elon Musk (which has proven to be a very controversial opinion in the hacker groups and Citizen science communities that I’m a part of).

During part of his talk, Venter mentioned an interesting realization they made during the construction of the first synthetic organism, it turned out that there were 50 genes that they had to include in the first synthetic organism that had unknown function. Without these 50 genes the new cell wouldn’t “boot up” and live and it made me wonder, what are those critical genes and what do they do that’s so critical to life?

It’s first important to clarify where Venter and his team started on the design of the synthetic genome which was (from the journal Science):

“Design of the M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome was based on the highly accurate finished genome sequences of two laboratory strains of M. mycoides subspecies capri GM12 ”

The further I started to dig into this genome the more time I realized it would take, it wasn’t simply the case of finding the genes with unknown function but digging through the data to find it. Here’s the graphic attached to the Science paper which provides a visual overview of the synthetic genome:

After a while I was able to find the genebank entry for the entire synthetic organism, just identifying those genes which have unknown function seems like it might need some custom scripts, anyone interested in running a quick script and sending me a list of the 50 Unknown function genes? If so, the story will continue!