The possibility of transcending the limits of human intelligence in scientific discovery has led this young British scientist to leave academia and found a startup. Founder & CEO James Field and LabGenius are engineering the evolutionary process to create novel proteins that have remarkable qualities. I caught up with James at TEDMED and had a most revealing interview.
Topics covered include:
- Sal Pitches the Syndicate
- Sal Introduces James Field, CEO & Founder of LabGenius
- James Field Was Inspired to Become a Scientist by Science Fiction
- Discovered Synthetic Biology by Participating in iGEM
- James Field Is the Second PhD from Imperial College on the Podcast, Beth Marcus Was the First
- “…the big flaw in my approach was that I was trying to apply rational engineering principles to nano-scale highly complex biological systems. And in my opinion, that's the wrong way to go about it.”
- “…if you start testing many designs in parallel and then selecting for the ones that work, you don't have to be smart.”
- “…LabGenius is a vehicle through which we can explore and harness evolution to develop new products.”
- Founding a Company Was the Best Way to Accelerate the Work that Excited Him
- Harnessing Evolution, but Doing it Better than the Natural Process
- “…in the case of natural evolution, the process doesn't get any smarter. But the beauty of our process is every single time we conduct one of these evolutionary cycles, we gain information that then enables us to be more intelligent about how we design these biological systems.”
- Concrete Applications
- “…because we're so mission-driven, we're gonna continue this mission until either we succeed or conclusively fail.”
- “…I was really banging my head against a brick wall until I found a group of investors who understand this to be an important part of the development of humanity…”
- Transcending Human Intelligence by Designing Evolutionary Processes for Scientific Discovery Is Astonishingly Promising
- James Field’s Parting Words
Transcript of “A LabGeni.us”
Guest: James Field
Sal Pitches the Syndicate
SAL DAHER: Hi, this is Sal Daher with the Angel Invest Boston Podcast. If you've been listening, you might have noticed that I love being an Angel Investor in Boston. The reason for this is that there's so much going on in the startup space here in Boston. Practical founders working with leading inventors, venture capitalists, angel investors, patent attorneys, it's a really exciting scene.
SAL DAHER: Now, you can join us in syndicates which allow people who are not part of the Angel Investment community to invest alongside Boston's leading angels. I invite you to leave your email address at Angelinvestboston.com, in the syndicate section and we'll be back in touch with you to help walk you through the qualification process as an accredited investor.
SAL DAHER: Remember, there is no obligation to invest, when you put your email address there. I hope you really enjoy today's podcast.
Sal Introduces James Field, CEO & Founder of LabGenius
SAL DAHER: Welcome to Angel Invest Boston. Conversations with angels and founders, usually in the Boston ecosystem but today we are very privileged to be at the TEDMED Conference and to be speaking with a young founder, James Field, CEO and founder of LabGenius, a UK synthetic biology company, which is participating in what they call the hive at TEDMED. And James was tremendously generous to sit down with us and give us a few minutes so we can talk with him.
SAL DAHER: Welcome James.
JAMES FIELD: Thanks very much for having me.
SAL DAHER: Great. So James, as a sort of a service to our younger listeners who are trying to find out a direction in life, we like to ask our fantastically successful guests how they sort of found their direction in life? A little bit of a biography and then how you kind of cottoned on to this is what I wanna be doing with my life.
James Field Was Inspired to Become a Scientist by Science Fiction
JAMES FIELD: Got it. Well, if I cast my memory back, I've always been a huge fan of science fiction. And I've always found that science fiction authors almost like, frustrated synthetic biologists in as much as they have this incredible vision for the future and the organisms that should inhabit it. But they're limited to manifesting those with pen and paper. And then I realized that you could actually do this stuff in real life. And there was a thing called synthetic biology and that enables you to treat living matter as an engineering substrate and build incredible things with it.
Discovered Synthetic Biology by Participating in iGEM Competition
JAMES FIELD: So, in terms of my background, I did an undergraduate degree in biology and micro biology at Imperial College in London. In the end of that undergraduate process, I participated in what is called the iGEM competition, which actually you may have heard of this. It actually was originally founded at MIT and now is a separate foundation. But the iGEM Foundation is an international competition that enables undergraduates and now post graduates to engineer new biological organisms and then they will converge on a jamboree at the end of the year and sort of compete for a grand, grand prize.
JAMES FIELD: And the really the key thing about that competition is it took me as a student and said look, here for the first time, we're gonna put the tools in your hands to build whatever it is that you want to build, and then go and talk about it. And that was an incredibly empowering experience for me. So following the participation in the iGEM competition in 2009, I went on and did a masters in synthetic biology at Imperial College-
SAL DAHER: Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JAMES FIELD: And then a PhD.
James Field Is the Second PhD from Imperial College on the Podcast, Beth Marcus Was the First
SAL DAHER: Wow. By the way, you're not the first PhD from Imperial College on this podcast. You're the second. Beth Marcus was the first. She's the founder of a startup in which I invested in many years ago.
JAMES FIELD: Oh amazing.
SAL DAHER: But please continue.
JAMES FIELD: Right, so, then came the trials and tribulations of doing a PhD, so I kind of went in with a false assumption that with synthetic biology you could design a new biological system and fabricate it, test it and then you have a new product.
“…the big flaw in my approach was that I was trying to apply rational engineering principles to nano-scale highly complex biological systems. And in my opinion, that's the wrong way to go about it.”
JAMES FIELD: And I tried that for a couple of years, and anything I built on a molecular level just didn't work. And it finally struck me that the big flaw in my approach was that I was trying to apply rational engineering principles to nano-scale highly complex biological systems. And in my opinion, that's the wrong way to go about it.
“…if you start testing many designs in parallel and then selecting for the ones that work, you don't have to be smart.”
JAMES FIELD: So, taking a kind of inspiration from nature, and the way the evolution works, if you start testing many designs in parallel and then selecting for the ones that work, you don't have to be smart.
SAL DAHER: Ahh. Okay.
JAMES FIELD: You just have to have the right tools.
“…LabGenius is a vehicle through which we can explore and harness evolution to develop new products.”
JAMES FIELD: So, by taking that approach, I was suddenly able to make leaps and bounds in my research and really, that inspired me to start the company that is LabGenius. So LabGenius is a vehicle through which we can explore and harness evolution to develop new products.
SAL DAHER: Wow. Biology, evolution, there's a connection in there somewhere.
JAMES FIELD: Right.
SAL DAHER: Can't help the cheap joke. So, how did you come about starting a company. Because a young brilliant biologist, like you, synthetic biologist, there's a lot of demand for that. What brought you to doing this extremely difficult thing of actually starting a company?
Founding a Company Was the Best Way to Accelerate the Work that Excited Him
JAMES FIELD: It's a really interesting question. So, if we just think about, from a technical perspective first, there's a ton of research that you need to do to be able to harness evolution. As a PhD student, you're always limited to conducting R and D that is probably under a PI who wants to take the research in a particular direction. Within the traditional academic hierarchy it would have been difficult for me to-
SAL DAHER: A PI's a principal investigator?
JAMES FIELD: That's exactly right.
SAL DAHER: That's the boss at the lab.
JAMES FIELD: That's exactly right.
SAL DAHER: Everybody there, including all the post docs are all minions. And the PI is the only one that is allowed to have "a brain."
JAMES FIELD: Right. So within this kind of rigid academic hierarchy, you work your way up through many years. You go from PhD student to post doc. And if you're very lucky, and you work very hard and you publish some great papers, maybe you'll one day become a PI.
SAL DAHER: Right.
JAMES FIELD: I'm really impatient as a person and I thought, is there any way that I can start pushing forward my research outside of the traditional kind of academic framework. And so, I raised some non-dilutive government financing and set up a company as a vehicle through which I could progress that work and really drive it towards a commercial application. So, set up the company during my PhD, secured this non-dilutive financing, and that really sort of set me out.
SAL DAHER: This is in London.
JAMES FIELD: This is in London. That is correct.
SAL DAHER: 'Cause I was thinking you could also have gone into industry and be paid very well. And not have all this risk. Why didn't you do that?
JAMES FIELD: So, that's a great question. I think for me, it's about the mission.
SAL DAHER: Ah.
JAMES FIELD: I mean, we've been working on this project for a number of years now and actually before we raised our recent financing round, the whole team was on minimum wage for two years. And really, sometimes I really felt that, why am I doing this? And then you think, it's because harnessing evolution is probably the coolest thing that you can spend your time doing. And it's the same for the whole team. It's this kind of mission based approach. We're all absolutely passionate about it. And I think, to be honest with you, even if we were receiving no salary at all, we'd still turn up every day.
SAL DAHER: So, it's sort of like, don't let your PIs spoil your science fiction adventure.
JAMES FIELD: Right. Right. I mean, I think to be honest with you, the PIs I had at Imperial were incredibly supportive so it's less a reflection of them, more of a reflection of kind of our academic framework.
SAL DAHER: The system. Yes. Right?
JAMES FIELD: In the system. Exactly.
SAL DAHER: Good people trapped in a dysfunctional system.
JAMES FIELD: Right. And as a young early 20 something it was possible for me to get my hands in far more resources through a private commercial vehicle than it was as a kind of a post-doc.
SAL DAHER: This is really fascinating. You know, the motivation here. This is really wonderful. James, go a little bit into what you're doing. So it's synthetic biology, it's not in silico, it's in vitro, meaning it's not in a computer, it's an actual wet-lab biology. You're actually having these proteins develop and mutate or whatever or change in an evolutionary fashion. So, please explain the process and explain why it matters.
JAMES FIELD: Right. I think I'll just kind of contextualize that by just thinking about natural evolution first and then telling you what it is that we do that's different.
JAMES FIELD: So, natural evolution is an incredibly powerful process. The reason that you and I are sitting here today.
SAL DAHER: Exactly.
JAMES FIELD: 3.8 billion years after the process started is just kind of testament to how amazing it is. The process itself, very simple. You create pools of genetic variability, and then you pull out of those pools, the things that work best.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
JAMES FIELD: And then you rinse and repeat. Now there are two problems with that process. The first is it's really slow. So it's taken us a long time to get here.
SAL DAHER: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Harnessing Evolution, but Doing it Better than the Natural Process
JAMES FIELD: The second part of that problem, it's a local optimization problem, which means that all you're doing is taking what you started with and trying to make incremental improvements to it. So, previously we were optimized to hang out in trees. Now, we're optimized to walk bipedally. A couple of problems there, we've got way too many bones in our feet as a function of that. And say, like the process of childbirth, highly non-optimal. So, those are two great examples of what I would call evolutionary scars. Those are the two principal problems of natural evolution.
JAMES FIELD: What we're doing that's different, is we're trying to short circuit that whole process, rather than years, millions of years, we can do that whole process in a matter of weeks. And the second part is we're bypassing the effect of evolutionary scars using synthetic DNA. So all that means is we can synthesize the exact genetic sequences that we want to test.
JAMES FIELD: The way that works is, every time we want to test a new design, we will physically create trillions of unique DNA sequences. Physically, in the lab. And those will sit in the tube and each of those unique DNA sequences encodes a different design. Now that's a completely different approach to if you were taking a rational design of an everyday object, like a table or something like that. There's no way you could test a trillion tables.
JAMES FIELD: The next part of that process is that we mix those unique strands of DNA with the machinery of a cell. And the machinery of the cell converts, reads that DNA and converts it into protein. So now we have a pot of a trillion unique protein molecules and that's the business end. So these are the actuators of some molecular function.
SAL DAHER: So, basically, you're having a bunch of these strands of DNA acting on cells and seeing what kind of proteins turn up?
JAMES FIELD: Yeah. The cells convert the DNA into protein-
SAL DAHER: Right.
JAMES FIELD: And then we test the protein for the function.
SAL DAHER: Okay.
JAMES FIELD: Now the really interesting part comes in this next phase.
JAMES FIELD: Physically in the real world, you can start separating those pools of proteins into different bins. Ones that work well, ones that work not so well. And then you can use next generation sequencing which is really a clever way of reading DNA sequences to start building up data bases of sequences and fitnesses.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
JAMES FIELD: And then you can crunch that data to extract the design rules that underpin these natural systems. And that's the really exciting bit. So when you have these design rules, it means you can then create another library of a trillion sequences, all of which will perform a lot better than that first library.
“…in the case of natural evolution, the process doesn't get any smarter. But the beauty of our process is every single time we conduct one of these evolutionary cycles, we gain information that then enables us to be more intelligent about how we design these biological systems.”
JAMES FIELD: So, in the case of natural evolution, the process doesn't get any smarter. But the beauty of our process is every single time we conduct one of these evolutionary cycles, we gain information that then enables us to be more intelligent about how we design these biological systems.
SAL DAHER: James, do you have any sort of concrete applications for these proteins that you've created using this evolutionary system?
JAMES FIELD: Sure. So a lot of our early stage projects have been financed by the UK Ministry of Defense. And they've been deployed across a range of different applications, bases, and we're currently looking at novel coatings to soft body armor, programmable adhesives, polymer reinforced nano-composites so, really deploying this technology to engineer materials at the nano scale to augment their properties. So that's within the material space.
SAL DAHER: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JAMES FIELD: But as a technology, the application for this really spans multiple industries so it could equally be deployed for protein engineering for novel bio catalysts and we've worked with companies around that. It can be used for antibody engineering, and equally we've worked with companies around those sort of projects as well. So, it's a platform technology that really spans several different areas.
SAL DAHER: Yes, and I remember looking at a company called Enevolv, from George Church's lab at Harvard. And what they were doing is something like this. You know, they're taking evolutionary approach, but with microorganisms. You know at the organismic scale, not-
JAMES FIELD: Right.
SAL DAHER: With protein scale. And doing massive ... causing massive mutations on these organisms and then having some of them be interesting things that could then be used in particular situations.
JAMES FIELD: Yes. It's, as a technique itself, it's this kind of whole premise. There's a ground swell of companies trying to embrace the concept of harnessing evolution and each company is taking a slightly different approach to it.
JAMES FIELD: And what's really interesting is that we're seeing companies now employing this approach with tremendous effects and each company, say Enevolv, I'm sure that they target certain problems that suit their technology stack.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
JAMES FIELD: And what's really interesting is we're seeing the, I guess the divergence of slightly different ways in which people are harnessing evolution for different applications.
SAL DAHER: Very promising area.
SAL DAHER: So, James, I understand that you are venture-funded, and you raised money from the Ministry of Defense in the UK, so you've been around fundraising a bit. Let's talk a little bit about the pains, the psychology of fundraising.
JAMES FIELD: Sure.
SAL DAHER: One of the things that's always in my mind when I hear a brilliant scientific founder is that, I keep saying this, Steven Hawking has a lot to learn from Willy Loman. Steven Hawking's a brilliant physicist, Willy Loman a mediocre salesman but the process of raising money is really selling the company. If you are a highly respected scientist, it means that you are someone who is used to getting the approbation of your peers. Getting your paper cited is an expression that you are working on something interesting, and that what you're doing is interesting, and people wanna go along and work on the same things. When you're fundraising, you don't get a lot of approbation, you get mostly rejection. So I'm always interested to see how a scientific founder deals with the rejection that inevitably comes in the process of fundraising?
“…because we're so mission-driven, we're gonna continue this mission until either we succeed or conclusively fail.”
JAMES FIELD: Yeah. That's a great question. I would say that at a personal level because we're so mission-driven, we're gonna continue this mission until either we succeed or conclusively fail. So rejection isn't something that has ever kind of inhibited us or made us feel uncomfortable.
JAMES FIELD: I think part of the reason for that is people have been probably quite rightfully skeptical of us from day one. So, as a PhD student who's trying to build a scientific venture with zero academic credentials apart from the fact he has a PhD, a lot of people in academia probably said, well you know he hasn't done a postdoc, he's only worked in one lab.
SAL DAHER: He's only a baby PhD.
JAMES FIELD: Right. Right. What right does this guy have to go and say that he's gonna try and harness his process [crosstalk 00:14:39]
SAL DAHER: The academic world is extremely hierarchical.
JAMES FIELD: Right. Right.
SAL DAHER: And a gerontocracy. Most of the grants go to PI's that are 70 years old or whatever, there's some statistic there like the average PI is like 71 or something.
JAMES FIELD: Right. So, I think within that framework, to even go out and have a crack at this, I think you have to be kind of robust in yourself and say, hey, you know what, yes there are probably a ton of PIs who had amazing ideas and are much brighter than myself.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
JAMES FIELD: But I'm not gonna be dissuaded by that. I'm just gonna point myself in my direction of travel and carry on in that direction until I've conclusively succeeded or failed.
SAL DAHER: So, you were steeled for this wave of rejections by your struggles in trying to pursue your interests in the setting, in academia that was not amenable to exactly what you were trying to do with evolution of proteins.
JAMES FIELD: So, I think, yeah, I think it was basically was like, look, here's a PhD student, starting out and trying to build a company but he doesn't have really any resources. He doesn't have a lab and he doesn't have a track record. If I was a PI, I would be very skeptical of myself, understandably. I was used to I guess maybe a level of skepticism.
SAL DAHER: I think perhaps inspiration comes from reading a lot of science fiction. You were just saying to yourself, ah your puny rejections cannot pierce my mighty armor, ahh.
JAMES FIELD: Maybe. Maybe. I think the other side of it as well is like fundamentally as a capability, I think this is something that humanity requires. So this thing that really drives us about this is that in terms of human progression, at the moment there's a thing that we call the cognition barrier, so humans can't do anything that's smarter than their own thinking.
SAL DAHER: Right.
JAMES FIELD: And if we're to get past that, we need to develop systems don't require human rational thought to create sophisticated products.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
“…I was really banging my head against a brick wall until I found a group of investors who understand this to be an important part of the development of humanity…”
JAMES FIELD: And really, in terms of the fundraising process, I was really banging my head against a brick wall until I found a group of investors who understand this to be an important part of the development of humanity and are investing across a breadth of human adventures that are tackling this exact problem.
Transcending Human Intelligence by Designing Evolutionary Processes for Scientific Discovery Is Astonishingly Promising
SAL DAHER: Very interesting. Very, very interesting. The concept of evolution, being a way to transcend the natural limits that we have to human imagination and to human ingenuity. We go to a random process established by humans. They can then transcend it. This is something that I hadn't caught ... I mean the idea that evolution allows us to transcend our capacity of our intelligence. That for me is ... you know I hadn't thought of it that way. It's tremendous. Yes.
JAMES FIELD: It's an incredibly powerful idea.
SAL DAHER: It is. It is.
JAMES FIELD: And when you start to think that we can build artificial systems that can generate hypotheses of infinite complexity and test and validate those autonomously, then you can start to produce incredible results, be it in biology, be it in physics, be it in engineering, this isn't something that's sort of unique to us. This is definitely a groundswell movement that's moving across the whole of industry. And as I say, it just required us to find this group of investors who have recognized that as the path that humanity is taking and garnered their support in order to kinda progress adventure and close our seed round.
SAL DAHER: So these are venture investors. These are strategic investors.
JAMES FIELD: It's a mix. But it already comes down to the individuals. So science is often ... can be scary for the investment community. There's a lot of technical risk there.
SAL DAHER: The common expression is: "it's a science project".
JAMES FIELD: Right. Right. And it's a valid concern a lot of the time. But amongst frontier investors where they see that there's tremendous opportunity if you can harness intelligent systems that transcend the human cognition area. This kind of venture really resonates with them. And there is a community of very bright, very able, venture capitalists out there that are particularly interested by this space.
SAL DAHER: Oh this is wonderful. James, given this experience that you had, first the university and now with the startup. What advice would you give to a young founder? You know, let's say somebody who's junior, third year in college somewhere, and who's thinking of taking a path like yours.
JAMES FIELD: Yeah. So, I think it's an interesting question. I'd say, what have I learned over this process? The first thing is a traditional academic structure may not be the right one to explore these ideas. Universities are incredibly important in the commercialization of these ideas.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
JAMES FIELD: We had a lot of support from the UK's industrial translation engine of synthetic biology SynbiCITE in the UK. There are equivalent organizations in different geographies. So work with the infrastructure that's been put in place.
SAL DAHER: In Massachusetts, we have the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Office.
JAMES FIELD: Yeah. So these vehicles are absolutely critical for getting your idea off the ground. And you have to work closely with them.
JAMES FIELD: The second part, as I say, a problem I see quite often with UK founders is that their ambition is shackled by their level of resources, and certainly I suffered from this problem at the start as well. So start with the big vision of what you want to build. Don't worry about building it all on day one.
SAL DAHER: Yes.
JAMES FIELD: You can build it over a 10-year period. That's fine. And start with meaningful problems as well. A lot of ventures are like tech push so I've created this cool thing in the lab and I'm not really sure what the applications of it are, but I'm just gonna develop it. So you have to be confident that what you're doing will actually be able to translate in something that is genuinely impactful as well. So I'd say those are three things that I would say to a young founder.
SAL DAHER: Excellent. James, as we wrap up our interview, is there anything that comes to mind that we haven't touched on that you'd like to express to our audience?
James Field’s Parting Words
JAMES FIELD: I would say ... I'd like to say to your audience, if you're thinking about taking the leap from either your nine to five or your PhD or your postdoc position into the world of entrepreneurship and you've got an idea that's been sitting at the back of your mind and you've been debating whether to take the plunge, I'd say absolutely, take the leap and have a crack at it. The worst thing that could happen is that you fail, but that's not something bad at all, you'll have an incredible learning so for me personally, this has been the most incredible experience and I would really recommend it to anyone who is entrepreneurially minded.
SAL DAHER: That's beautifully said. I'm thinking of a founder, in whom I've invested, Laura Indolfi of PanTher Therapeutics, and she was a postdoc at MIT, and she was a bio-engineering postdoc and she took some courses at the Harvard Business School. Harvard Business School has an arrangement where if you get an A on the course you don't have to pay tuition if you're a PhD in another field. So you can take as many courses as she wants as long as she got an A and she got an A in all of them, she didn't have to pay any tuition and she learned an awful lot about how to start a technology company. And she is just doing splendidly. So this dovetails with your encouraging words for potential technical founders or scientific founders.
SAL DAHER: James Field, I'm so grateful that you would sit down here, James Field, CEO and founder of LabGenius, a UK synthetic biology company. I'd say more, I mean it's a company that is working on something that is attempting to transcend human intelligence. This is really remarkable and I'm very grateful that you made time to sit down with us here. Thank you very much.
JAMES FIELD: Thank you for having me.
SAL DAHER: This is Angel Invest Boston coming to you from Palm Springs, California, at the TEDMED Conference. I'm Sal Daher.
SAL DAHER: I'm glad you were able to join us. Our engineer is Raul Rosa. Our theme is composed by John McKusick. Our graphic design is by Katharine Woodman-Maynard. Our host is coached by Grace Daher.