Tech + biology = great possibilities!
The overlap between biology and tech is where it's at.
It’s been a few days since I decided to start this blog (on a week-between-Christmas-and-New Years whim), and I’m still not sure exactly what I’ll be writing about here. Or format, audience, etc. I just know that I’m a scientist exploring the tech (and now Web3) space (and how it relates to science), and reflecting on the facts that a) there’s so much exciting stuff happening, b) I love reading blogs from others, and c) I know I’m better able to get my thoughts straight when I write. So the idea is that this will be a blog that helps push me to play with all this info I’m diving into, turn it around from a few sides, learn it better, and on the side, hopefully find others who are interested in the same themes and building cool things in this space. Beyond that, who knows!
The name of the blog: why?
Jessica’s TechBio Adventures! It could definitely change in the future, but for now I feel like it adequately captures the ‘I don’t know exactly where I want to take this, but I’m excited!’ vibe I’m going for. And TechBio is the space I’m most interested in diving into right now.
What TechBio means to me
People are starting to talk about TechBio more and more, generally in the context of new types of biotech companies that aren’t like traditional biotech companies. It’s been defined as the tech revolution meeting biology, and is said to involve bringing ‘engineering-first’ thinking to program/design things (solutions/products/companies/etc) based on our understanding of biology (as opposed to searching for individual drug candidates the way traditional biotech has typically done). Amee Kapadia of Cantos Ventures writes:
The very advancements in technology that have allowed for unprecedented biological innovation are changing the archetype of biotech companies themselves, enabling a new pace of biological innovation. Many refer to this new class of companies as “TechBio,” a term originally coined by Artis Ventures to reverse the emphasis and signal that the tech revolution has finally arrived in bio. Rather than biotech, this is the age of bio meets tech.
I like this definition. I also feel myself using the term more broadly, to describe more of a ‘field’ (or even a way of thinking) rather than a company. To me, TechBio is a pretty good name for the space that crosses between biology (which is the field I did my PhD in) and tech (generally thinking in the Silicon Valley startup-esque sense of the word; ie. optimistic software developer-types [and friends], rapidly iterating from zero to one, oftentimes bootstrapping, raising money only when they need/want to, generally trying to ‘change the world’ for the better).
My introduction to the tech world
I was introduced to the tech/startup world by my partner and Phage Directory cofounder, Jan Zheng (@yawnxyz). It still feels new to me, even after four years’ exposure. I came from the molecular microbiology lab bench, where I wrote out my experimental methods and data in paper notebooks (on good days; the rest I wrote on paper towels and rubber gloves). I barely used even Excel during 7 years at the bench, stored most of my data in PowerPoint files, and generally retrieved these files by searching my Gmail inbox for attachments. It was a pretty analog existence.
Who am I?
I grew up in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada, which is about midway between Edmonton and Calgary, and had about 10-12,000 people at the time. I made my way an hour or so north to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, where after a bunch of changes to my major every semester for the first couple years, I landed on a BSc in Microbiology. I loved microbiology, didn’t want to be like everyone else and try for med school (and then didn’t get into dental school; I know, SO much more original), and so I did a PhD in Microbiology and Biotechnology. I studied bacteriophages (phages for short), which are bacteria-killing viruses you can find everywhere on Earth (water, soil, sewage, food, waste, your gut, skin, etc). I graduated in 2018 and have been working on my startup, Phage Directory, ever since (more on my sidestep from academia and experience diving into entrepreneurship in future posts).
From PhD school to startup land
I definitely didn’t know at the time that we were starting a startup, did not even know what a startup was, and definitely didn’t think random kids like me could just start them on a whim. But luckily Jan knew about all this and knew how to buy domains and create websites, etc. And most importantly, he knew that you didn’t need permission to start solving a problem.
Equally luckily, I was not feeling enamoured with academia at that time, and was generally always looking for ‘extracurriculars’ to take me away from my research, much to my advisor’s chagrin… so I was feeling pretty open-minded about what I might do next.
Little did I know when I absentmindedly showed Jan my Twitter feed one day over coffee, where a researcher I followed (Dr. Steffanie Strathdee) was trying to urgently crowdsource phages to save a girl’s life, that this was the kind of set of circumstances that makes lightbulbs flash in the heads of ‘startup/tech people’ like Jan (I used to just call him a ‘computer person’… I have clearly become much more sophisticated).
The big deal was that these phages were just like the ones I collected in my lab, and that Twitter/cold emailing were the only tools available to connect this supply with its corresponding demand.
Even more surprising for me was when someone from the lab down the hall from mine, in Edmonton of all places, responded to the tweet and said they would be happy to send their phages. (I had been about to tell Jan that no, academic-grade phages like mine wouldn’t be good for a case like this). Nope, wrong. Contrary to what I had been taught, it turned out that academic labs can participate directly in filling gaps like this… (often they just don’t know they can, or don’t know they’re sometimes the only ones who can; more on what I’ve learned from researchers in future posts).
So back to Jan’s lightbulb moment. Needless to say it was a no-brainer for me to jump on this ‘side project’ and help Jan flesh out his idea of an online directory of people working in phage labs like mine, paired with a TinyLetter-based ‘alert service’ (literally just a newsletter), so we could help find this girl (Mallory Smith, who had cystic fibrosis and a lung infection) some phages and hopefully save her life.
Before we knew it, (and with the help of Steffanie Strathdee for amplifying our message early on, as well as my PhD advisor, Christine Szymanski, who prompted me to reach out to phage labs we knew by email), labs actually started signing up on our site, and people started volunteering to share their phages. Eventually we were even being written about in STAT News as a possible solution to antibiotic resistance (I remember thinking, wow, this is two days of work by a couple of nobodies… is this really where the bar is set?). Sadly, Mallory passed away a few days after we started working on the project, just before phages would have had the chance to work (Steffanie’s efforts had led to phages being sent and administered; and later research would find that they probably would have worked; the system just needed to be a bit faster).
For Jan and me, this cemented the need to keep working on tools like this for future patients. Importantly, this was my first taste of the tech world’s bias toward action (and ‘wait-for-no-one’ ethos), and the possibilities instantly became 100x more exciting than any of my research up to that point. I finished up my PhD as quick as I could after that, eager to break out into what I would learn was an entire global community of fast-acting problem solvers.
Since then, we’ve sourced phages for 30+ emergency patient cases from phage research labs and biotech companies around the world (successfully saved a 7-year-old’s leg from amputation and rescued a turtle from a years-long infection) and built up a community of researchers and phage enthusiasts committed to studying and accelerating the use of phages across a range of medical and agricultural contexts. Most recently, we’re actively working to scale phage therapy to more patients, currently by serving as the phage sourcing and clinical/research data management partner for Phage Australia, a newly formed and funded network of academic and medical institutions in Australia set on integrating phage therapy into Australia’s healthcare system.
I like the tech/startup world, it’s nice here
The more I’ve learned about the tech/startup world since I dove into it, the more I think it’s where ‘my people’ are, even if there aren’t yet many of us biology types in it. (Heavy emphasis on the ‘yet’ because this is clearly changing fast).
I’m forever thankful for Jan, as well as Ian, Jared and the team at the Innovation Gateway at UGA, and to the hundreds of hours listening to Jason of This Week In Startups, who’ve all helped me learn the lingo and basic tactics, and to internalize the message that this tech/startup ‘world’ is for everyone, including me.
As a scientist, the Lean Startup methodology speaks to me. It feels reasonable to me to start small and iterate quickly when tackling hard problems, all the while collecting as much data as possible, and focusing on getting rid of incorrect hypotheses quickly.
It also feels right to be optimistic (or at least spend more time around optimistic people) and possibly even idealistic about the future and our ability to influence it. I think I used to be more this way, and I know it’s still in me, but it definitely got somewhat buried during my time in academia. I would like to get it back!
What I’m excited about next
After watching a single ‘computer person’ make more of an impact on my field of biology in a few months than I feel like I did in 7 years in the lab, I’m convinced that working with startup/tech people like that can give biology people like me superpowers.
While I still feel fairly alone being a biology person who hangs out in tech spaces, I’m starting to see a lot of ideas exchanged about how applying tech (and that way of thinking) to biology is one of the Next Big Things. Not to mention how cool it is to see the world of web3 (and in particular, web3bio) suddenly exploding.
I’m also very psyched to see new institutions of science popping up (like New Science and Arcadia), built by people thinking outside the box and redesigning how science and biotech can work. This is all so exciting to me, because it feels like more people are coming to the realization I’ve recently been able to put my finger on; that tech people/tools + biology people/problems = great possibilities!
Thanks so much for reading, I hope you’ll stick with me on my adventures to dig deeper into what happens when tech meets bio, who is doing what in this rapidly expanding field, and what kind of future we can all work on building today.