Synbio for the Masses: A Media Lab Grad’s “Deploy or Die” Story
By Julie Legault, MS ‘14
When I started as a grad student in the Media Lab’s Playful Systems group, I never imagined that straight out of graduation I would be launching a synthetic biology mini-lab kit startup. I thought I would go on to work for a company like Disney, or maybe start a human-centered design consultancy with fellow labmates. My area of study was design with a focus on wearables and human physiology. But that’s the Media Lab for you; when Joi Ito talks about about being “antidisciplinary,” he’s not kidding around.
Falling for SynBio
Amino started out of my own first experiences with synbio (that’s synthetic biology to the uninitiated). I was researching olfaction and hormone regulation for a new wearable idea linked to wellbeing when I came across my first hands-on experience with synbio. This was in David Kong’s IAP class, MicroFluidics for Synthetic Biology. I joined for the MicroFluidics part, and because I was told by older Labbers that IAP (MIT’s Independent Activities Period) is when you are supposed to do things you wouldn’t normally do. In David’s class, Natalie Kuldell of BioBuilder came to give a talk — and she blew me away. For most of David’s class, I was lost in terms of the whole “biology” thing. Sure, I had fun wearing a lab coat and pretending to be a scientist, but what really connected was when Natalie was talking about the outputs of synbio. I’m a designer, I care about the physical stuff, stuff I can touch, smell, play with. And one of Biobuilder’s workshops is on creating the scent of bananas in E.coli bacteria! So, a few months later, I contacted Natalie to see if I could join her banana-scent workshop and she said yes.
Around the same time, I helped my advisor, Kevin Slavin, coordinate a synbio workshop at Joi Ito’s house. It was amazing. Synbiota came and taught us how to design DNA to create violacein, a medical compound that can be created more cheaply at home through bioengineering. That was such a thrill! The process itself I found beautiful and inspiring — the cells were violet! Creating the scent of bananas and making lilac-colored E.coli was super cool. It wasn’t anything I’d ever imagined doing, or even wanting to do — but I was hooked.
Recognizing a Need
Recounting my experiences with friends is really when the need for Amino became apparent: the idea of a kit or object that could make synthetic biology appealing, intriguing to non-biologists, hackers, and regular people. Once they got over their initial reaction almost everyone wanted to take part in a workshop, but the first remark was almost always a jokey comment about how dangerous it was to be letting a non-scientist (me) play with biology. The negative reporting on GMOs from the media really tints our view of the science. And although we still joke about those first experiments, now, everyone I talk to is super excited to build their own living nightlight (the first Amino kit!).
Synthetic biology affects so many aspects of our lives, such as food, medicine, cosmetics, energy, and materials. Yet right now, only a select few have access to the equipment and knowledge to experiment with biotechnologies. Obviously, specific knowledge is required for in-depth research and good use, but in the same way that anyone can now experiment with software and electronics, we should be able to experiment with plug-and-play biotechnology. It’s affecting so much of our lives — we need to be able to understand it firsthand and get past the fear and anxiety, because understanding biology allows us to interact more thoughtfully and meaningfully with our environments.
I didn’t think about it as starting my own company as much as a real belief and passion for getting the product and the experience out there, available to everyone. At the Media Lab, where the norm is to learn by doing and to do by making, the next reasonable step was to create a prototype of the kind of kit I had in mind: a small, self-contained minilab for bioengineering.
There’s another thing Joi Ito talks about that stuck with me during this creative phase: his motto for the Media Lab, “Deploy or Die.” I, along with my colleagues and mentors, worked so hard on getting the prototype to a “deployable” stage, it just made sense to build a company from it. I realized there was a growing need to provide people with the means to learn about synthetic biology by experiencing it and experimenting with it firsthand. Amino really grew from that desire to see the world embrace synthetic biology like they did with Arduino hacking over the last few years, and how Tamagotchis taught us to love and care for digital lives in the 90s.
Amino is a small bioengineering platform that will enable anyone to learn how DNA can be used to program living systems in order to create things. It has all the hardware to help you in a simple 1–2–3 process put your DNA program into a bacteria and then grow and take care of that bacteria.
Right now, Amino is optimized for use with a friendly type of bacteria used in labs for research. This bacteria strain is rated BSL1 by the Center for Disease Control, which means it is non-pathogenic and doesn’t require special containment equipment.
Amino aims to take away some of the fear and complexity from basic interactions with synthetic biology and bioengineering. It allows users to experience synthetic biology and learn about an important and complex topic in an intuitive, hands-on way. Amino provides users with different wetware kits (DNA, cells, reagents) to transform, grow, and culture their own synthetic organisms — colored, glowing, smelling, tasting — for which we are collaborating with wetware company Synbiota.
Entering Startup Mode
I’ve built a team from trusted friends in Montreal with complementary expertise, and together we are bringing Amino to the market. We just launched our Indiegogo campaign, and were accepted into the Media Lab’s E14 incubator program. We’re also starting to talk with angel investors, and from the beginning had the support of the Shuttleworth Foundation thanks to Philipp Schmidt at the Media Lab. We are currently working with Synbiota to develop the wetware side of things, and with Biobuilder to look at the education market. We have beta trials set for the fall in middle schools and the MIT Museum in Cambridge. We aim to officially launch Amino and start shipping kits in early 2016.
What’s great is that no one ever questioned the feasibility of my idea, this foray into entirely new territory. The response from the people and organizations to whom I’ve gone for support has been, “You want to launch a startup bringing synbio to the masses? Great! Let’s make it happen.”
I’m very excited about starting a company based on an emerging market, a new ecosystem. We get to play in a new space and use design to really inform and attract users. I think it makes the work really matter — to know that we are part of a small but strong group of emerging companies and teams trying to educate and really open up this science.
As a designer, Julie Legault works to make scientific and technological innovations approachable to, and desirable by the public. Julie holds an MS from the MIT Media Lab, where she was in the Playful Systems group; an MA from the Royal College of Art (UK); and degrees in both design technology and arts from Concordia University (Canada), She has taught at Birmingham’s Institute of Art and Design (UK) and worked with multiple companies, museums, and pop stars to develop smart materials, wearable technologies, and interactive art.