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From Dance Clubs to Syn Bio: MIT’s Collins on Startups, Second Chances

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had a chance to work at UMass Medical Center and shadow some doctors. I learned a couple of things: I didn’t like interacting with patients, and I didn’t like seeing stuff come out of patients’ bodies. So I crossed that off my list. I also grew up with nuclear war as the major threat, so I was intrigued by what a physicist—or more broadly, a scientist or engineer—could do to come up with a defense system that could shoot nuclear weapons out of the sky. But as I explored that topic, I saw that the physicist/engineers didn’t seem to be having much of an impact on that issue, and decided that probably wouldn’t be the best way I could spend my time.

I really saw that academia would allow me to do very creative work on my own terms. I could get involved with companies, with doctors, and with policy. I jumped at the opportunity when I saw the freedom to create new things, and interact and help train young people.

X: How did you end up going from engineering to synthetic biology?

JC: Tim Gardner, a student of mine, and I had become intrigued about molecular biology. We sat back and began to think about—well, could we tinker in molecular biology? Could we take molecular parts like genes or promoters or other bits of DNA or RNA and build stuff inside a cell? We spent several months thinking through what type of circuit, for, example, might be interesting to build inside a cell. And what we settled on was the notion of a genetic toggle switch [a concept borrowed from electrical engineering, in which a switch can be flipped on or off with a transient electrical signal]. We figured out how you could do this inside a cell, and thereby endow cells with programmable memory, and effectively reprogram them to sense and respond to different elements in their environment.

X: Molecular biology wasn’t your forte, though. What was it like to switch fields on the fly?

JC: it’s not easy to do. What was intimidating was, molecular biology is very, very detail rich and it’s quite challenging to work your way through either a molecular biology paper or textbook if you don’t have a background in it. So it took us awhile to have at least a marginal working knowledge to actually begin to work our way through these papers, and make contributions.

X: Given you weren’t particularly comfortable with business, why did you end up founding companies?

JC: As an undergrad, I saw that I enjoyed the notion of translating work and getting involved with business, but I learned early that I didn’t have the proper skills to run a company. I liked being involved though, and more broadly wanting to have an impact through my work. I’m always excited when we make a new discovery and we impact the academic community, and help change the way people think or inspire new and additional studies.

X: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned stepping into the entrepreneurial world?

JC: The incredible value of getting the right people involved from the outset. The science and technology is only a very small part of the story. The team is so much more important: Who is your business leadership, and do they have the passion and experience to execute on what your scientific team has created? Who are your investors, and do they have deep pockets and the commitment to bring this company to the level that they can? You have to take your time to find the talent that can add value to the company every day. In many cases we brought on the wrong people at the wrong time. They were incredibly well-meaning and hard working, but they just didn’t have the right skill set or the experience to add value every day to the enterprise.

X: How do you deal with failure, and how do you train your students to deal with it?

JC: We fail a lot in science, and it’s something that I don’t think that students are well trained for in academia. Nobody wants to fail, but … Next Page »

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