Fiona and Phanos are students from ETH Zurich participating in a northern California study tour, “Tackling Food System Challenges with IT Innovation." The tour explores the role of IT in addressing the food system challenge of ensuring food and nutrition security for a growing global population. Here they recap their impressions of a synthetic biology accelerator located in the heart of San Francisco, CA.
Day 5 of the ETH meets California tour. After 760km of road trip around the bay area, our group ends up in the vibrant city of San Francisco. A visit to a biotech innovation hub allowed our group to experience the fast, exciting pace things get done around the Bay Area.
What did we see?
IndieBio is a common working space that lives up to the expectations of a fast-paced city such as San Francisco. With bikes parked inside the working space and graffiti art on the brick walls, the space does not initially seem like an office of biotech scientists. A short talk with any of the start-ups however quickly clears any doubts about the high level of work being done.
Who is behind this?
The chief scientific officer, Ron Shigeta explained to our group that IndieBio is committed to funding and building start-ups which use biotechnology to refactor how the world works. Other than Ron, the IndieBio team consists of co-founder Arvind Gupta and program director and venture partner Ryan Benthencourt.
How do they do it?
A short online application can be submitted by aspiring problem-solvers twice a year. The IndieBio team chooses the top ideas and provides working space, a high-end laboratory, $250,000 of funding and a wide range of academic or industry experienced mentors providing counselling. With time, IndieBio expands their network, knowledge and experience, something all start-ups can benefit from. As Mr. Shigeta explained, the applicants are highly international, something which makes the working space at IndieBio so unique.
So what’s cooking?
After a short introduction, we had the opportunity to learn about the current and past ideas that got developed under this roof. These are some of the ideas we loved:
- Miraculex: A group of food scientists transforming lettuce protein into a sweetener
- Clara Foods: The world’s first egg whites produced from yeast instead of chickens
- Willow Cup: A start-up of two working on the first plant based froth for beverages
- BioNancent: The world’s first humanized infant formula
- Memphis meats: A team joining the lab-grown meat revolution producing meatballs
- Mfluidix: A DNA diagnostic device that can be deployed and provide results in thirty minutes to detect zika virus infection
More than the hip, open room and top notch lab, IndieBio manages to do something that many accelerator programs fail to. Rather than simply focussing on the business development and market outreach of an idea, the space is highly focussed on kick-starting technologies in the biotech sector. The presence of scientists from all around the world in a relatively small basement seems to be producing amazing results, and creating new ideas every day. On the other hand, even though the hub is surrounded by one of the most technology-accepting communities in the world, it seems that the gap between customer acceptance of biotech products and scientific innovation has yet to be bridged.
Could we stand in their shoes?
The afternoon ended with a brainstorming exercise prepared for the ETH2Cal team of students, where ideas to tackle food system challenges were proposed and pitched:
- Counterbalancing the impact advertisements have on students in University dining halls
- Redefining the connection of high-end research with hands-on work to eliminate food insecurity
- Increase the outreach of soil conservation practices through precision farming
- Eliminating the middle-man between land-owners and farmer to incentivise long-term sustainable practices
We encourage and welcome all comments on these ideas!
Blog authors: Fiona Hornung and Phanos Hadjikyriakou are students at ETH Zurich
This study tour is part of ETH Meets California, a 10 day event organized by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) that brings some of its top researchers and students to California to unravel the mysteries of science and technology in an exchange of ideas with west coast counterparts in academia and industry.