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SynBioBeta: Interview with the CEO, Kate Wildauer

This blog was written by Daniela Quaglia, PhD, MBA

It was September 2013 when I first heard of SynBioBeta: the leading community of entrepreneurs, investors, policy makers and enthusiasts devoted to the responsible growth of the synthetic biology field. In that occasion, John Cumbers, founder of the company, was coming to the UK with a travelling course on synthetic biology, which was making a stop in London, where I happened to be based. Their program caught my eye. Not only the course seemed extremely interesting, but I was particularly attracted by the invited speakers: to participate in the event would have meant the possibility of networking with accomplished people in the field of synthetic biology. I remember trying to sign up for the course, and being told by Kate Wildauer, now CEO of SynBioBeta, that the material that they were covering in the course was probably too basic for me, but that there was the possibility of helping out as a Teaching Assistant. I jumped on the opportunity, and this turned out to be my very first step into the world of synthetic biology. I quickly realised that the network reality of SynBioBeta exceeded expectations: a few months after I attended the workshop, I secured my first synthetic biology job at Synthace, a synthetic biology startup company in London.  

SynBioBeta is dear to me, and I was very excited when Kate and John agreed to be interviewed by me for the PLOSSynbio community.

SynBioBeta SF, October 2016 Credit: photo by Steven Gregory Photography
SynBioBeta SF, October 2016
Credits: photo by Steven Gregory Photography

The primary mission of SynBioBeta is to grow the synthetic biology industry. In Kate’s words “We see the potential and the promise of what synthetic biology can do and realise that there is the need to support the industry in its growth. [When he founded SynBioBeta], John felt there was a need to create opportunities for people to discuss and network and particularly focus on the application of the technology. There are a number of conferences that are academic in nature and what John did was to create an environment, a community that includes representatives of academia, industry, business investors and the media. It is a hub for people that touch the industry in many different ways.”

SynBioBeta is especially renown in the synbio community for its annual conferences in San Francisco and London, and their synthetic biology courses. But what they offer is much more. In fact, they are involved in a number of other initiatives and they provide everything from tours to dinner series and Activate events. Here is your occasion to know more and get involved.  

Q&A with Kate Wildauer

DANIELA: Hi Kate, and thank you very much for taking the time to answer some questions for the PLOSSynbio community. I would like to start with a personal one. You have been part of the SynBioBeta family for a long time, and you have recently been appointed CEO (congratulations!). Would you like to share your story with us? How did you first get involved and how did SynBioBeta change over the years?

Kate Wildauer, SynBioBeta, participating in the CLI Synthetic Biology - Opportunities, Challenges and Environmental Benefits session of the COP 13 meetings in Mexico, December 2016. Kate stressed that “synthetic biology is part of the next industrial revolution.” Credit: Photo by IISD/ENB | Diego Noguera
Kate Wildauer, SynBioBeta, participating in the CLI Synthetic Biology – Opportunities, Challenges and Environmental Benefits session of the COP 13 meetings in Mexico, December 2016. Kate stressed that “synthetic biology is part of the next industrial revolution.”
Credits: Photo by IISD/ENB | Diego Noguera

KATE: It doesn’t seem like it has been that long. I guess time flies when you are having fun! It was very interesting. I had done many things in my life. My background included science, business, education and non-profit experience. It was very coincidental that when I had just started to look for a position, a job advertise was out there that listed exactly those four things: that’s an unusual combination! John hired me the next day. I initially worked part time for SynBioBeta in helping to establish the courses we offer, and as a small startup, there was no shortage of work to be done in many areas, so I wore many hats. Having both a science and business background and having experience in education and non-profits as well as being a small business owner all seemed to be relevant as time went on and John and I began working closely together to shape the growth of SynBioBeta. We went from a team of 3 to 12 very quickly.

DANIELA: SynBioBeta effort is focused on creating a fertile ground for discussion among the industries in the field of synthetic biology. This includes startups, and it must be exciting to see them grow and reach their targets. Do you have any favourite examples of businesses that made it from the very first steps to being successful synbio companies?

Kate felt that John was best suited to answer this question, and he kindly provided the following answer.

John Cumbers, SynBioBeta SF, October 2016 Credit: photo by Steven Gregory Photography
John Cumbers, SynBioBeta SF, October 2016
Credits: photo by Steven Gregory Photography

JOHN: I’m proud to say that the founders of Zymergen were present at the very first SynBioBeta meeting that we held in 2012, but Zymergen did not exist at that point. The same goes for Twist Bioscience. It’s great to see some of these young companies grow from nothing into valuations of hundreds of millions of dollars and some great applications in the marketplace.

DANIELA: I believe that everyone knows about the SynBioBeta conferences held each year in San Francisco and London. But one of SynBioBeta aims is also that of educating people to synthetic biology. Can you tell us more about this? Who is your target audience?

KATE: In addition to our main conferences,  we do a number of things to help grow the industry. We offer the courses, Activate events, corporate tours, a dinner series and other customized events. We also have the blog and digest and have begun working on additional outreach and educational activities for the coming year. Our offerings are available for different audiences, and we have customized that content. We have done the courses for various groups: a college cohort, a group of investors, and for particular companies that maybe work in the field but not all their employees are scientists. We have done it also for mixed group of people from other industries to give them a taste of what it is that we do and for computer programmers to encourage interest in the field. All of those [events] were slightly modified to suit those populations. In fact, the goal of the courses is to make the knowledge appropriate and available to a number of different people.

DANIELA: SynBioBeta is very present in the US and England. What about other parts of the world, such as continental Europe, for instance.

SynBioBeta SF, October 2016 Credits photo: Steven Gregory Photography
SynBioBeta SF, October 2016. Credits: photo by Steven Gregory Photography

KATE: It is my hope that SynBioBeta will grow in many other countries. We are seeing a lot of interest from Denmark, Austria, and John has just visited France. We received enquiries from Chile, Israel and Canada. These countries reach out to host events.  For example, we have a lot of requests right now for the Activate events. The goal of the events is to start making the connections and inspire growth of the industries in other locations. This is the key: bringing people together and fostering growth and connections among the community. No one company can do this: it is about partnerships and connections.  

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 CEO of SynBioBeta, 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?

KATE: Revolution is really a great word choice as I see synthetic biology as a tool that will change how we address some of the key problems facing humanity on a global scale. Just as we experienced great leaps forward with the development of industry at the beginning of the last century and technology toward the end, biology will be the means by which we develop solutions in the coming years. The key will be education and access to information and resources, and SynBioBeta hopes to play a leading role in the growth and development of the industry.

SynBioBeta SF, October 2016 Credit photo: Steven Gregory Photography
SynBioBeta SF, October 2016
Credits: photo by Steven Gregory Photography

I am obviously a fan of SynBioBeta, but I do not think to be particularly biased when I say that the synthetic biology community should be thankful for what SynBioBeta did, and continues to do for us. Synthetic biology is only a word after all, not dissimilar from biotechnology or biology or microbiology, for example. What makes synthetic biology such a revolutionary phenomenon is the will of the community to bring their knowledge to the people, to make of synthetic biology an instrument to improve our society. But, as also Kate stated, this is no easy task, and no single individual or company could achieve this on their own. It is all about bringing people together, in order to make the network larger and stronger, and this is possible only thanks to companies such as SynBioBeta, whose primary goal is that of being of support in spreading the knowledge and nurturing the connections. SynBioBeta helps to make the word “synthetic biology” shine a bit more.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this article are the private opinions of the author.

You can follow Daniela on twitter: @Dny_Q

Please note, header image: The individuals in the panel photo are (L-R): Robert Friedman, J. Craig Venter Institute; Kate Wildauer, SynBioBeta; Mark Tizard, CSIRO; and Henrik Toft Simonsen, Technological University of Denmark
Credits Photos by IISD/ENB | Diego Noguera

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