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

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I encourage my team to fail quickly—run quick experiments to see if the general notion is going to work—and recognize that most of your ideas aren’t actually very good, and that most of your ideas aren’t going to work, or they’re not the right idea to explain the underlying actual biological mechanism even though they sound right.

X: What do you mean students aren’t well trained for failure?

JC: I think in general, the academic system is set up so that you avoid failure at all costs. If you’re a good student, it’s hard to fail in today’s system, and that’s a problem. Where I learned to fail, and I failed miserably, and repeatedly, was in athletics. In the athletic world, when you’re on the field, you can’t hide from the failure. You miss the shot, or you bounce the ball of your foot, or you don’t run a good race. I was a basketball player and a cross country runner in high school, and I always wanted to be a better athlete than I was—I didn’t run as fast score as many points, or get on the court as much as I wanted. But that was a great spot to learn how to fail and move on. When I became a young academic I was thankful I had those skills, because I failed a lot with the experiments, but I just moved on to the next challenge.

X: How would you characterize where synthetic biology is right now, and where did it go astray?

JC: We need to do a better job of explaining where we’re at, what we can do, and where we’re going. We made a mistake with the strong push toward bioenergy—it was too early, the promise was hyped up more than it should have been, and it was a mistake to think you could go from laboratory bench top demos to industrial scale as quickly as many of the startups and the investors thought they could. Many young people jumped out of academic training into companies thinking this was the next big thing, and we hadn’t even developed the education materials and programs to help train the next group.

I think we’ve recovered now, as a field. Starting about five years ago you saw many of those companies not doing so well, and people came back in academia to focus on developing the foundational platforms for the field and another set of applications.

X: So where is it ready to make an impact now?

JC: Diagnostics, and in parts and platforms. We’re seeing a resurgence in the development of tools that could impact clinical or basic research. I think an area that is incredibly promising is therapeutics—using synthetic biology for example to engineer organisms to address a range of conditions or to produce new drugs. Bio energy is going to be a stretch within the next decade, but in looking out beyond that, I think we could maybe impact that as well. And in agricultural biotechnology, we’re starting to see some intriguing efforts develop as groups are seeing what synthetic biology can do to reengineer plants and other organisms.

X: Have people effectively had to dial down their expectations for synthetic biology?

JC: I don’t think we’ll do everything that people had envisioned, but the field has great potential. We still need to learn a lot of biology. We don’t know enough biology to engineer it with the efficiency and scale that I think we all would like to.

X: So what needs to be done to move the field forward?

JC: We need improved educational materials, and maybe mechanisms that would allow more folks to readily transition into synthetic biology from different [fields]. We need technologies that allow us to engineer biology faster and more efficiently— like cheaper, faster, more error-free DNA synthesis technologies. Improved computational techniques that model and design synthetic circuits.

But the commercial space is going to help. Getting more products on the market, and more diagnostics and research tools out there, and making them available to researchers, consumers, and healthcare workers—those will become the key inflection points for the field. That’s when you really will see folks saying boy, we’ve really executed on the promise.

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