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Interview with Bill Liao: Co-founder of IndieBio

This blog was written by Daniela Quaglia, PhD, MBA

If you are part of the Synthetic Biology community, and you are thinking of commercialising your idea/product, you have probably heard of IndieBio. If not, I am here to help. Whether you belong to the first or second category, I have no doubt that you will enjoy this article, for the making of which I had the honour to interview Mr Bill Liao (@liaonet). Philantropist, serial and social entrepreneur, he is the co-founder of IndieBio (among many other initiatives, such as Coder Dojo and Weforest: check these projects out! They are unbelievably interesting, too), and a Synthetic Biology passionate.


IndieBio is the world’s first Synthetic Biology accelerator. It was founded in 2014 by Mr Liao and Mr Arving Gupta, and it has headquarters both in Europe (Cork, Ireland) and the US (San Francisco, California). IndieBio helps to transform Synthetic Biology ideas in successful businesses: it provides funding and mentorships through a three-month training program. IndieBio sees biology as a new technology, not only as a field of studies, and it aims to accelerate those solutions that will have a global impact and help solve some of the most significant problems that humanity is currently facing. Interested? So was I. Luckily for us, Mr Liao kindly agreed to answer some questions. Let me walk you through his inspiring answers.

IndieBio: why and how.

Daniela: What inspired you and Gupta to found IndieBio in 2014?

Mr. Liao: The kinds of challenges that we face as a species are really needing to be addressed by a quantum leap in democratized biology. And by democratised I mean we need to be fully taking advantage of the technical revolution that is going on, and the enormous price decrease in doing biology in order to face the challenges that we need to face. In my experience, entrepreneurial companies are the greatest change agents that we have when it comes to deploying new technologies that have democratised. For example, if you look at the cost of sequencing a genome you have got this massive drop in price. The first meaningful genome was sequenced at a couple of billion dollars; today there are companies that offer genome sequencing at a couple of hundred dollars. This is a ten-million-fold decrease in price in twelve years: you must take notice of that and start leveraging it!

Bill Liao DIF

Daniela: IndieBio stands for Independent Biology: how did you come up with this name?

Mr Liao: A lot of the greatest movies in the world are Indie movies: they are not affiliated with the current system. The current system (both the academic and the big corporate structures that are there) produces a lot of great things. But we also know that highly creative short time to market innovations do not thrive necessarily in either the big corporate or academic structures. You need to find an independent way, a third way: this is why Indie. Just like an Indie movie might not necessarily be made by a big Studio, IndieBio is not being made necessarily by a big institution.

IndieBio: what is it and who is it for. 

Daniela: You give mentoring and training for three months: in what does this consist?

Mr Liao: It is a three months’ program of very intense focus on the business, the team skill, the story, and the commercialisation of the technology. We do not want to take scientific risks. It is not another grant that you can go and get and then you are going to spend it on proving a tiny proof of concept. What we focus on is commercialisation. You want a start-up that, not only has a shot at getting funding but getting the right panel, the right traction, the access to the market.

Daniela: What do you look for in a start-up? Who should apply?

Mr Liao: The first thing that every investor will look for is a team. Lone funders only win in the movies (like lone heroes). You’ve got to have enough people believing in it, that is going to become a team. After the team you need: a product, a prototype, something that is actually close enough that it can be commercialized, and we are always looking for products that can scale globally. Very narrow tiny innovation is very unlikely to attract our attention compared to something that could be applied across the world and serve millions of people as opposed to ten.

Synthetic Biology: a true, collaborative revolution.

Daniela: What is the difference for an entrepreneur between backing a technology based (for example IT) start-up and a Synthetic Biology start-up? I guess that they need to be aware that in biology timing is necessary longer for achieving results. Does this not discourage people from investing in the Synbio field? My impression is that it did in the past, but this is changing now. Why now it is different?

Mr Liao: There are two reasons: democratisation and determinism. Several of the companies that have been through IndieBio are either making money or they are months away from making money. Innovations like CRISPR and other things that give you precision are great, but even just the lower sequencing prizes: now it is much easier to “look at what you have done”. Think about five years ago how primitive it was: if you made a change to an organism even discovering what that change was doing and how to measure it was actually a challenge. Now it is much easier. Democratisation and determinism allow investors to look at biotech, rather as tech-bio.

coderDaniela: Just one question about Coder Dojo and its potential applicability to Synthetic Biology. Coder Dojo (which you also found) is a worldwide movement that gets kids into programming computers so that they become native digital creators more than just users. My question is: why just kids? This would be critical for the Synthetic Biology community, too. For instance, I would like to learn how to code, but as a scientist I don’t have much resources to do this or specific places where I could go to learn. Could you envision the possibility of opening up a special section of Coder Dojo for scientists?

Mr Liao: Coder Dojo is open source. We have a format for all the people to learn how to code. We call it Coder Dojo EXceL. We have done a Bio-Coder Dojo where kids actually get to learn basic biology and we hope that that will scale as well. I don’t have a specific program right now: I would love if people decided that they wanted to do that, and maybe they could create a Dojo for other scientists.   

Daniela: I like very much to ask this question to leaders in the Synthetic Biology community, and so here it goes also for you: by being the founder of IndieBio, you get a unique perspective on the Synthetic biology revolution the world is starting to experience. Can you share your personal vision of the future of synthetic biology with us?

Mr Liao: Synthetic biology is going to solve more of our global challenges than any other technology.

Mr Liao gave me so much to reflect about. The Synthetic Biology revolution seems to be driven by the democratisation of biology and determinism. IndieBio is there to help great teams of people with ideas that could offer tangible solutions for societal problems, to bring their prototypes to market, to teach them how to succeed outside of big corporations and academia in a more independent fashion. Synthetic Biology is collaboration, and as such, we should encourage and propose ideas that could make the community thrive. An example could be the creation of a Coder Dojo Synbio for the scientific community. Anyone interested? The idea is so appealing that I am thinking of starting a Dojo myself: beat me to the punch!

I find myself in total agreement with Mr Liao (you might also be interested in reading one of my past articles): I believe that Synthetic Biology will revolutionize our lives and I am grateful to the visionary investors, such as Mr Liao, that are giving the possibility to ‘tech-bio’ to grow faster and stronger to quickly address the important, urgent societal problems the world is facing today.

(note: pictures in this post were obtained online from the corresponding websites -IndieBio and CoderDojo; the picture of Mr Liao was kindly provided by Sally Hudson, EA to Bill Liao).

(note2 -errata corrige: in the original article we stated that “today there are companies (such as 23andMe) that offer genome sequencing at a couple of hundred dollars” . We were asked to clarify: 23andMe does not offer DNA sequencing, rather the analysis performed by 23andMe is genotyping (commented by a spokesperson from 23andMe).

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