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Hello Tomorrow, an innovation facilitator that makes its first strides in synthetic biology

 

As the next Hello Tomorrow Global Summit is approaching (taking place on March 14-15, click here for more info on the event), I asked Nadine Bongaerts, Vice President of the organization, to tell us a bit more about themselves and the benefits they bring to the community.

 

Kostas Vavitsas: What is Hello Tomorrow?

Nadine Bongaerts: Hello Tomorrow is a global organisation which supports pioneering startups, companies and governmental organisations in scientific innovation, or, what we would like to call ‘deep tech’. We developed this term to emphasize the difference between digital innovation, often referred to these days as ‘tech’ and innovations with a profound scientific foundation.

Going from an invention in the lab to the market is a challenging and risky adventure and requires collaborations and connections with diverse stakeholders at both local and global levels. A strong network is not only useful to find investors, but also supports the recruitment of specialists, helps to establish collaborations with companies, etc.

Today’s environment in which many innovators operate is too fragmented and should be better connected.

This is why Hello Tomorrow’s mission is to connect and develop an international deeptech ecosystem that highlights, supports and connects the people who develop or support technologies that can make a societal or industrial impact.

 

Kostas: What kind of activities does Hello Tomorrow do?

Nadine: We are currently most known for our worldwide deeptech startup Challenge for which we received more than 4,500 applications from startups and universities around the world this year and our annual summit in Paris that gathers 3,000 scientists, investors, politicians and representatives from various industries. The Summit is as Prof Ed Boyden (MIT) described Hello Tomorrow ‘a great way to engineer serendipity’. Every year, we receive heartwarming anecdotes from startups such as:

“We met our CEO at the Global Summit. Hello Tomorrow is one of the best things that happened to us!” CEO, GTX Medical (Switzerland – Grand Prize Winner 2014)

“Before, nobody knew about us. Since you made us finalists, people contact us from all over the world!” CEO, UQuant (UK – Industry 4.0 finalist 2017)

“We found our lead investor at the Global Summit”, CEO, Biocarbon Engineering (UK – Grand Prize Winner 2015)

This Summit is not only relevant for startups and investors. We also involve politicians and ethicists to discuss the societal impact of cutting-edge technologies, inspire PhDs and postdocs with talks from entrepreneurial scientists with career paths beyond academia and help corporates to innovate. The upcoming summit is on 14 and 15 of March and Merck is sponsoring a number of free tickets for PhD’s and Post-Docs, so if this is to interest of anyone reading this blog, I advise them to check the website.

Hello Tomorrow has also expanded its activities to other places in the world. We currently count 11 hubs, 60+ curators and about 100 ecosystem partners from every continent. Every year, we identify thousands of deeptech projects worldwide, empowering the entrepreneurs behind the innovation and connecting them in a collaborative ecosystem. We have organized deep tech startup competitions and conferences in amongst others Seoul, San Francisco, Singapore, Istanbul and South Africa and Geneva.

Through these international activities, we have learned a lot about technological and societal developments, cultures, and the startup climates. As we learn, more and more of our knowledge is translated in reports such as this first one on the transition From Tech to Deep tech that we wrote with the Boston Consulting Group. We also created a consultancy branch to support businesses with tailored advice on how to innovate with deep tech.

Dan Widmaier, CEO of Bolt Threads, presents synbio spider silks on the biofabrication panel at 2017 Hello Tomorrow Global Summit. Watch his talk. Image credit: Arthur Distel.

Kostas: How did you get involved in Hello Tomorrow?

Nadine: The first activities of Hello Tomorrow  started in France in 2011. Back then, French PhD students Xavier Duportet (who studied synthetic biology at MIT) and Arnaud de la Tour realised that sources for scientists developing radical technological solutions which could transform the way we eat, travel, cure and power our society, were, especially in Europe, limited. They started Hello Tomorrow with the aim to better bridge science and business.

I got involved in Hello Tomorrow in 2013 as an ambassador for the The Netherlands, when we launched the first European Hello Tomorrow Challenge and Summit. At that time, I was finishing my masters in Life Sciences & Technology at the TU Delft and also led the Dutch Chapter of the Kairos Society, an international community of student entrepreneurs. I immediately recognised that this challenge was different than other startup challenges, because an international startup challenge that especially focussed on fields like biotech, nanotech or artificial intelligence was rare in Europe at that time. After the first edition of the Summit, I joined the team in Paris to work on expanding the Hello Tomorrow scope from Europe to other continents. In only a few years, Hello Tomorrow has grown exponentially and it has personally been also very educational and inspiring to be a part of.

 

Kostas: What is the impact of Hello Tomorrow on biotech?

Nadine: The ecosystem that Hello Tomorrow builds is especially relevant for biotech / synthetic biology. As synthetic biology is becoming more and more mature, there is a real need to develop ecosystems around it. Many places in the world do not have the same infrastructure you see Boston or San Francisco. I also think that for a field like synthetic biology that is highly interdisciplinary in nature, Hello Tomorrow is a good place to find new technologies to innovate with.

The number of biotech startups that apply to our competition is increasing. This year we have a category track specifically for biotech sponsored by DSM. We are specifically looking for projects focussed on biocatalysts, bio-based materials, cellular factories and biotechnologies to repurpose waste.

Although the finalists are not known officially yet (they will be announced at the Summit), we already spotted some interesting biotech projects to watch:

  •    Cellugy: Cellugy wants to replace any plastic in food packaging. It has developed a nanocellulose polymer film which is transparent and decomposable at home within 2-6 weeks. The clue is that the nanocellulose polymer is entirely produced by bacteria that metabolise sugars from fruit waste into nanocellulose.
  •    Magellan Life Science: Magellan Life Science uses its proprietary cell line and fermentation process to produce the protein Brazzein. Brazzein is responsible for the sweet taste of the West African fruit “Oubli”. The team at Magellan Life Science wants to commercialize its nature inspired non-caloric protein sweetener to address the global “sugar reduction” challenge.

Startups that participated in the Global Challenge such as the ones mentioned above, are invited to come to our Global Summit to meet investors, companies and mentors, as well as pitch their projects to win cash prizes.

In 2016, the biotech startup Koniku was awarded the €15K euro Hello Tomorrow Data & AI track prize. Koniku’s vision is to build the new platform called “wetware,” using engineered neurons to create neural chips or “AI” chips. which could replace or outperform silicon.

 

Oshiorenoya Agabi, CEO of Koniku, pitches during Hello Tomorrow Grand Finale 2016

 

Kostas: What is your vision for the future in biotechnology and synthetic biology?

Nadine: I believe biotechnology is the way forward and the ultimate way to make technology compatible with nature. The possibilities are endless and I dream of a world with clean production of chemicals and biomaterials with unique properties, engineered crops that grow in dry climates, and smarter, preventative medicine, all made with biology are the norm.

This future already exists in the labs and the big challenge will be bringing it to the markets. While I am positive and excited about this progress, I also have concerns about the lack of awareness and perception about synthetic biology amongst the general public.

Big international media coverage of the field mainly happens when something goes wrong, for example with what we saw with the CRISPR babies. I hope that we can move beyond the negative associations with GMOs, or designer babies and show more examples of what synthetic biology has to offer. Here, I also see a role for researchers to reach out more to the general public.

We also need to innovate the way synthetic biology products and therapies are regulated. Traditional regulations, especially in Europe, can make it really difficult for synthetic biology products to reach the consumer or patient. I hope that continuous and constructive dialogues between policy makers, researchers and the public can help to deal with uncertainties and risks while allowing us to to profit from all that synthetic biology has to offer.

If we can overcome these challenges, I think synthetic biology will change everyone’s life.

 

 

Nadine Bongaerts is the Vice-President to Hello Tomorrow and a PhD student in synthetic biology at INSERM and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Paris. She holds a bachelor and master degree in Life Sciences and Technology from the University of Leiden and TU Delft. Before she joined Hello Tomorrow, she co-founded science communication agency Science Matters in 2011 and was the president for Kairos Society the Netherlands from 2012-2015. As a passionate teacher, she has lectured at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, mentored the iGEM Bettencourt team in 2016 and is a currently a faculty member for Singularity University Benelux.

Other contributors to this post: Nicolas Goeldel, PhD and Deeptech Lead at Hello Tomorrow; Katie Riminton, Commincations officer at Hello Tomorrow

Banner image:The Hello Tomorrow community at the Global Summit in Paris. Image credit: Olivier Ezratty

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