It’s been three thoughtful months for Revolution Bioengineering since the crowdfunding campaign ended. That was the end of the road for us at the RevBio team – we didn’t make our goal and the team couldn’t survive another year on hope and determination alone. But the color changing flowers are in motion.
Often, entrepreneurs idolize a technology that doesn’t actually solve the problem at hand. But in our case, it wasn’t the color changing flower that was important, it was the idea that biotechnology could be made accessible in an unexpected way. We fell in love with the problem – effecting social change with beautiful biotechnology.
The color changing flowers were a way to bridge a gap in understanding, an exciting new way to bring complicated science home in a very tangible way. By pairing our social mission with a practical economic goal, we thought we had found a way to fund a path towards an essential conversation that would go on to impact all of biotechnology.
In reality, while color changing flowers were essential to our social mission, they were underwhelming to the floral industry. And it turned out that the traits that would have made an impact in the floral industry didn’t have the instant, magical, appeal of a flower that changes color. In short, our two goals put us in direct conflict with ourselves. We had built the wrong entity to achieve our social mission, and the social mission diminished our ability to solve industrially relevant problems.
Beautiful biotechnology intrigued the public, inspiring gardeners, artists, and scientists alike. We connected with artists in England and the Netherlands, and right now researchers in the Netherlands and New York who joined the cause and are in the process of building the flower. One version is shown in the picture below: It goes from white to hot pink.
Color-changing flowers are moving forward, but they will be introduced as part of a public discussion rather than as a product of a profit-seeking entity. I’m converting Revolution Bioengineering to the entity it should have been at the start: a non-profit organization dedicated to beautiful biotechnology.
I’m excited about the shift. I’ve realized that communicating and teaching are at the heart of what I want to do, and being able to share my perspective on biotechnology has been an incredible experience so far. People are excited about the idea that biotechnology can amaze and delight in the same way that today’s electronic technology adds another layer of experience to life. The concept brought RevBio to Portugal, where we spoke about beautiful biotechnology at a Thought for Food. It took me to Germany, where I gave a TEDx talk on applied biology and how we use the knowledge we’ve gained through decades of basic research to discover and to innovate. And in California we spoke to our own industry from a communications standpoint, to other industries about the challenges and potentials of biotechnology, and to executives from around the world about how biotechnology will play a role in the future.
This summer, Nikolai conducted a job search that’s landed him in Virginia, putting his ideas to work in an established biotech company with the infrastructure and runway to make them real. While I’m sad the team has to split up, I know he’ll be an exceptional asset at the company he’s joined.
I spent this summer with Singularity University, an organization with a reputation for unbridled optimism about the future and unfettered enthusiasm for the way technology can shape the world. The difficult professional choices I was facing after RevBio had left me disillusioned. But the dedication of the students, faculty, and staff to cultivating a generation of caring and thoughtful entrepreneurs went a long way towards helping me rebuild my sense of wonder and excitement.
I was also privileged to participate in the SynBio LEAP fellowship program. During our week at Asilomar, we gained insight from regulators, advocacy groups, industry, and academia, and strengthened our own visions of the future for the field. For me, that vision included a framework for building trust between consumers, producers, and developers of applied biology.
The simple fact is, I’m still in love with the problem. The conversation about biotechnology is an essential one, and one that will only continue to grow in importance as biological knowledge is applied in new and different ways. I’ve been pleased to see a shift in the way genetically modified foods in particular are being discussed throughout the media, but the discussion about biotechnology, GMOs and how we relate to nature remains a difficult one. It is critical that we discuss these advances in a way that brings together different worldviews rather than driving them apart.
I’m happy to say I will be working on building these productive conversations in my next chapter. The project started at LEAP is growing into OneSky, a collaboration to develop the values shared between consumers, advocacy groups and industry and establish a standard of ethics, quality, and process in applied biology. I’ll be able to dive into these conversations knowing that we’re working towards a common goal – a more beautiful future.