Built with Biology 2022— Attending the world’s largest biotech conference
- Meeting Zoom, Twitter, and LinkedIn friends, IRL! 🤩
- Visiting IndieBio 😱
- Seeing state-of-the-art biotech literally in front of me
- Visiting UC Berkeley, my potential new home 👀
- Recording amazing interviews, including one with Eric Schmidt!
- Getting awesome internship opportunities 😅
- Visiting the Genesis House… man, hacker houses blow my mind.
So, hey! I’m Sofia, a young person working in biotech. I’m currently researching lab-grown cotton at a university in Mexico. I also do science communications through my blog, my podcast OBio, and writing articles for a biotech VC firm based in Switzerland — that’s the personal intro that I repeated over 50 times last week but is yet to be mastered.
How did you get into biotech? Why are you here? — some people would ask.
My answer is always the same: I watched a video about CRISPR when I was 14 and I’ve been following my curiosity since then. I’ve learned about CRISPR and the gut microbiome, researched biofertilizers for an iGEM project, and now lab-grown cotton. My obsession for biotech brought me here. I absolutely love meeting new people in the field, and there’s no better place to do so than the Built with Biology, in-person conference.
Some people seemed skeptical, others amazed, and others were indifferent. I guess it’s even rare for undergraduates to attend an event like this. “How come is a 12th grader here?” — No, I’m serious: how did I actually get here?
People. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by truly amazing people in the biotech field, who have supported me along this zygote-aged, 2-year journey — I know, I’m very new here.
Specifically for Built with Biology, I will give a huge, huge shoutout to Seth Peachey, Race Against the Clock co-director, who helped some friends and me get sponsored tickets to attend this conference — you rock, Seth!! ❤
Enough context! Wanna what I learned from attending the world’s largest and most amazing biotech conference, in-person, as a young biotech developer in-the-making?
People IRL 🤍
Rule #1: don’t be a “high schooler”
As my biotech journey started in the middle of a pandemic, LinkedIn and Twitter were my best allies to know people in the field. Through cold outreach, I’d soon be having meetings with biotech CEOs and founders, meeting someone new every week.
Though it’s clear why a super passionate teen would like to meet the CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks, it’s unobvious why he would give the teen 15 minutes of his time.
The Great Online Game is the answer. When people looked at my Twitter or LinkedIn profiles, they didn’t only see a random 16 y/o. They saw the teen who is writing beautiful articles on synthetic biology, is super passionate about biotech, knows important people in the field, and is working on interesting projects too — let me know if that was a bit too egocentric…
Now, when it comes to meeting new people a)in-person, b) serendipitously, and c) at a conference, there’s not much chance for them to know you beyond the fact that you look like a very young… kid. That means that your intro is everything.
Even if your appearance screams “uninteresting” to many people, your second chance is showing them that you’re actually ahead of your age, or at least that you’re doing interesting stuff. Mention what you do, don’t label yourself.
Know what you and everyone else are there for
Day 1 of the conference was awesome. I got 3 internship opportunities, met pretty much all my biotech idols, and learned interesting things at the talks — oh and took lots of selfies too 😉.
How could day 2 be any better? — I asked myself and my mentor this question. He suggested that I enjoyed the conference, so I did one of the things that I enjoy the most: create content.
I’d recorded about 10 different interviews by midday, when I went outside and chatted with the iGEM gang. I told them that I was tired and bored. The talks were supposed to be interesting but they were either too high level or too specialized, and no one seemed to have the same energy I had about biotech.
One of them asked me: what do you think most of these people are here for? Then everything made sense to me.
Panels weren’t meant to be debates where people’s ideas and strategies were actually questioned. Few ideas in the talks wouldn’t have been mentioned in a good article already, or would be unobvious. The goal instead, as I now see it, was to have a somewhat interesting discussion, which showed the progress they’ve made as a company; to sell it.
So then I started asking people what had brought them to the conference. The answers were either getting investment, hiring people, or getting a deal, but rarely “networking” alone.
Why was I there for? Learning and networking, mostly networking. What for again? To get mentors for my lab-grown cotton project, to learn, to potentially get investment for my project, and create digital content.
Shortly, my incentives weren’t very aligned with those of others on day 2.
How to live in the future
Amy, Klara, and me traveled to San Francisco on day 2, to visit some of Amy’s friends who were living in a hacker house: the Genesis House.
I honestly didn’t want to go. I was already tired, the weather was cold, and the house was far. Plus, taking the BART, waiting for the Muni and the Uber took like 1 hour — Now these comments are coming from a not-so-stoic girl based in a very small city, who is used to commute times shorter than 15 minutes.
First person I meet when entering the house was this unconventional-looking guy, Amy’s beffy, who was devouring a broccoli. His name’s Alex K. Chen — the guy has such a large network that you may as well know him already.
Alex is quite an interesting and smart person indeed. Although he won’t reveal his real age, he’s been taking drugs to reverse his biological clock, so his biological age is currently 11 years old. If you ask me, he looks like he’s 17 chronologically.
We talked about existential questions and longevity. Then, other peeps who live in the Genesis House arrived too! One of them worked in the epistemology space but we couldn’t talk much. The other one was actually Mexican like me! His name is Marco, and he showed us his maker lab, which is right there, in the house!!
He’s currently working on a contract project for a large pharmaceutical company which was insane for me to see. Instead of tired, I was now amazed. I never imagined that something like the Genesis House could be possible: people mostly below 30 years old, living under the same roof, all super smart, working on amazing projects, basically building part of our future world? Wow.
Even just for that night, I felt like I was living in the future. Our transportation and the food had come almost magically with one tap on our smartphones, I was meeting with people from around the world whom I’d only met through Zoom before, Alex is kind of a time traveler, and Marco was building state-of-the-art equipment for a very important pharmaceutical company.
It makes sense: to surround yourself with people who push you to be better, who you can have interesting conversations with constantly, living in a house where you can build stuff, and in a city where everyone else is doing the same — That’s how you live in the future.
Day 3 was Race Against the Clock: Built With Biology’s party to welcome younger folks like me into the bioeconomy. During the conference, I met more people from Mexico, made new friends from Egypt, got perspective on biotech communications, introduced my friends and myself to Eric Schmidt (former CEO of Google), and chatted with earlier-stage biotech founders.
Many of these guys were doing AMAZING stuff. Fruit coatings to combat food waste, genetically-modified tomato that had more antioxidants, sustainable glowing sticks, automation machines for labs, bioart, biodegradable straws, and even probiotics for hangover.
It reminded me of the vision I’ve had for some months now: beautiful biotech products being in every pharmacy, supermarket, mall, house and street store. 3D-printed buildings made from mushroom bricks, clothes grown using bacteria, cars that run on biofuels, lab-grown meat and dairy, skin microbiome products, and more… MUCH MORE!
Throughout all three days of Built with Biology, I have no doubt that the most famous booth (excluding Ginkgo’s cause those guys are too famous) was LightBio’s. They’re growing biotech products that anyone can touch, that everyone can interact with.
I had the chance to eat lunch with the founders, who mentioned how it’d been hard to pitch investors when you’re at the intersection of consumer products and art, doing hard science at the same time.
Surprisingly, at the conference I could even see biotech VCs going there with child-like amazement seeing the glowing petunias. And so I had more datapoints to proof my hypothesis true: people want to touch biotech.
At first it may seem foolish to think of an Avatar-like world, or bringing dinosaurs back to life, but what if it actually makes sense to bring foolish and crazy ideas to life? What if this is what the biotech needs to accelerate its progress? to make biotech sound cooler to outsiders to the field? to welcome more biotech developers into the bioeconomy?
If not us, who? If not now, when? — JFK
We went to my mentor’s place in SF for dinner. We talked about lots of interesting things while sitting on the floor, which made us look like a cult, which I absolutely loved.
As a mentorship relationship, a lot of our conversations are about me asking questions and him helping me answer them. So my question of the night was if I should be less ambitious.
Steve Jobs used to say that the world as we know it was built by people not much smarter than ourselves. That means we can shape it, we can bend our reality, create a new world.
And well, that’s kind of what I’ve been trying to do for the past 2 years. Especially during the past 5 months, I’ve been trying to bring into existence something that’s never been done before, at least not in the way that I’m doing it — I’m talking about lab-grown cotton, btw.
I’ve noticed that innovation can be both objectively and subjectively hard. When I say objectively, I mean that making the thing work is actually hard. By subjectively, I mean that the whole world is telling you that the chances of success in your mission, as a “high schooler”, are equal to zero.
Perhaps the latter is not that subjective though. I have a hell lot of things left to learn, and college will definitely help with that. But that doesn't mean I can’t get started, which I have.
Still, on day 3 I met people doing actually legit things, who are at least 4 years older than me. It made me think that some degree of impostor syndrome is great for me once in a while. It also made me question: should I be less ambitious? The inspirational answer is in the subheading.
Who I am and where I’m going
What did Christina Agapakis tell me when we met in-person? “you’re Twitter famous!”. Then Youssef Abdelmaksoud and his friends from Egypt told me how much they love what I do, a girl from Toronto told me she’d seen me on Twitter, people from Ginkgo told me they know me from there too, and a biotech VC from Israel told me she’s been following my newsletter for some months now.
It’s simply amazing to see how the internet has helped me connect with all these and many more people — I’ll actually make a pause to thank you for reading this right now. I really appreciate it. It makes me happy :)
So that means I’m doing something right with my content creation skills. Still, my goal, ever since I watched that video about CRISPR as a 14 y/o, has been to start a biotech startup to make an positive impact in the world.
To do that; to bend reality as we all know it, to grow something that’s never been grown before, I need way more than a great Twitter account. I need to become a great scientist.
As I wrote it in my notes before this blog: science x art = genius. I’m already good at the art. If only I get really good at the science, I’ll be unstoppable. Not being super smart in that yet, can create doubt in people, including myself. I don’t want to be known as the Twitter girl only, but as S🧠FIA: CEO and founder of a company taking lab-grown biomaterials to market.
Race Against the Clock!
Attending Built with Biology, IRL, has been a key experience in my biotech journey. It’s inspired me, it’s broadened my perspective, given me the chance to meet more amazing people, it’s gotten me tons of badass biotech stickers!
No seriously, above anything else, Built with Biology has made me hungry.
On day 4 my plane back to Mexico would leave at 1pm. Still, there was something left to do: visit UC Berkeley, my potentially new home.
After sleeping at 2am, I woke up at 5am to finish to finish preparing for my interview for a potential scholarship, and then arrived to UC Berkeley’s campus at 7am —apparently too early for everybody there.
The sun was just rising, the streets were empty, every door was closed. Until the famous Campanile tuned to tell everyone that it was 8am. As an art of magic, all doors opened and I started my adventure to know the place.
If that were to be my home for the next 4 years of my life, I needed to get to know as many places without missing my flight. I wanted to visit the huge library, the new Bioenginuity Hub, some engineering buildings, and the store — yes, to buy some sweet swag.
UC Berkeley was the last place I visited in this trip. The first one was IndieBio. So here’s one last story…
Amy is a huge huge fan of Indiebio. She didn’t mind if we were carrying our baggage, she didn’t mind if we hadn’t eaten lunch yet, if people on Jessy Street (where Indiebio is located ) are smoking crack, if we didn’t know anyone at IndieBio who would let us in. She was determined to visiting the place.
At first the guard wouldn’t let us in, which made sense. A few minutes later though, we met some friends at MoMa to see Neri Oxman’s exhibit. It turns out that one of them actually knew the director of IndieBio. He would give us a tour after seeing the exhibit.
We were on our way to IndieBio (again) when I realized that we’d left our baggage at MoMa, which would close in less than 30 minutes. As you may infer, Amy was seriously willing to leave her stuff there as long as she didn’t miss the beginning of the tour. That wasn’t my priority.
So we ran. We ran to the museum, picked our stuff, then ran back again with our suitcases to IndieBio. We were at the place and told the same guard that there was a group of people waiting for us for the tour. Confused, he said no one had entered since we’d left and that there were no tours planned for that day.
1 minute later, the group arrived. The guard was naturally surprised, and Amy just told the group: wow! you guys are slow!
Fast-forward to UC Berkeley, I found myself Racing Against the Clock, quite literally, from one building to the other.
When I said “we ran” I really mean that Amy ran and I was trying to keep up with her pace. After running at UC Berkeley, I realized that the group wasn’t slow, it’s just that each of us had a different sense of urgency to accomplish different purposes.
I confirmed that how fast you race against the clock will only depend on one question; the most important question to me right now: how badly do you want it?