Synbio Future talk: Video and Retrospective

So, I gave a talk at the Synbio Future conference in Cork, which was organised by SynbioAxlr8r and brought in some top talent in Synthetic Biology to speak about their work and the prospects for the future of the field, and Ireland’s role in it.

My own talk was in the “translation” block, so I tried to discuss my experiences making a business out of Synbio. At the time, I was trying to raise money for IndieBB (an effort which failed), but I tried to keep that out of the talk except where it was relevant.

I’m afraid that since the talk, the failure of IndieBB to raise funds meant that I lacked the resources to continue working full-time in my lab..or even part-time. So, for now my biohacking escapades are on hiatus, and I’m working on software development professionally, and committing some of my spare time to mentoring the teams at SynbioAxlr8r in UCC.

I don’t really know where I’ll end up from here, but I still believe in the promise of free/libre biotechnology, both as a cultural and commercial vehicle. There were two reasons why my own venture failed; one I knew was a risk in advance, the other is a hard lesson I avoided for so long only because of my excessive faith.

The first is that biology is time consuming and error prone, and ultimately even the best ideas may not work out in reality. Unlike more logical fields like computer programming or electronics or even basic engineering, it’s not always possible to predict failure by skill and foresight alone; one must try things, and see if they work. In my case, I had some outright failures, and some partial successes, none of which succeeded in a way that was marketable. I’m planning to fully disclose those in ensuing blogposts, though I summarise them in the video above.

The other, harder lesson, and one which I think is behind much of the failure to commercialise things that are free/libre, is that I was targeting a free/libre market which simply doesn’t exist.

Let me qualify that, because it’s important. The market, by and large, is not averse to openness, and customers don’t favour closed approaches. Rather, the market simply does not care. When you choose your phone, you do not choose based upon the number of patents associated with it. Nobody buys iPhones because they’ve patented rounded corners; they buy them because of effective marketing and the impression of status (inexplicably) attached to them. People are just as happy buying Androids, because they are capable of doing the same things as iPhones (vastly more, in fact, but keep reading) and offer greater choice and variety.

Crucially, the openness of Androids does not appeal to most customers, nor does the fact that you can actually own an Android phone in a meaningful way, modifying and tweaking it, or programming for it, or otherwise using it in ways that Apple forbid their customers to.

If Android were marketed on its openness (which would be overselling it, but let’s gloss over that..), it would not succeed. It happens to be open, and this has played a strong role in its success because of the faith and mindshare that it accrues from developers, but as far as customers care, openness is meaningless. The technical details of why it is superior to the more heavily patented, closed, spyware-rich alternative are utterly uninteresting to the rank-and-file customer base, and even many hackers who know better still choose iPhones because they wish to appear hip.

In my own work, I tried to appeal to people on the innovative nature of my work, and I also expected that at this early stage in biohacking, more people would smile upon my work because it would be patent-free and free/libre in nature. I thought that my target market would be interested to know why my offerings were better than the alternatives. I was wrong; most people who are willing to spend money to support work, even those who are early adopters and consider themselves avant garde, do not seem to care much for the openness of what they work with. Indeed, I have endured screeds from people who do value openness accusing me of greed for trying to make a living producing open a certain section of the market that does care for openness is, paradoxically, the least likely to actually support those producing open products.

Instead, prospective customers wanted to know about the essential traits of the product, rather than its technical, philosophical and social role. They wanted to know whether it was easy, fun, informative, and transferable. They wanted it to be affordable. They didn’t care whether it duplicated prior work (though it didn’t in my case) and they didn’t care whether it was cutting edge. In the same way that Arduino repackaged the old idea of microprocessors in a way that made them accessible, I should have been emphasising that my approach would make biotechnology accessible, even if it superficially resembled what had come before. The reasons why it would accomplish this feat were irrelevant.

Learning this lesson, that openness and creativity is (to put things bluntly) not enough on its own, has been hard. For me, the benefits of supporting open work are self-evident. At this moment in time, I enjoy a computer, a browser, and a blogging platform that are entirely open, and given the choice I would never choose a closed alternative. I fell prey to the assumption that others in my field thought alike, a fallacy of selective hearing and filter-bubbling.

If I ever am in the position of offering a biotechnology product again, I’ll know better; keep things open, but don’t bother asking for money on the basis of good intentions. I know now that I’m a bad marketer because I’m a good scientist; I’m unwilling to make promises I’m not certain I can keep. But such promises are at the heart of good marketing, and I’ll have to learn to be less honest and more frivolous in my communications. If I gave the above talk again, perhaps it would contain more of these revelations, but then most of the crowd wouldn’t have made my mistakes in the first place; so perhaps this is a very personal lesson.

To close on a positive note, I am a better mentor to the Synbio Axlr8r teams than I was before, because I can share these bits of advice. I encourage the teams to be open, and not to patent their work (with varying success), but I also know now to warn them off marketing on this basis. Be open, but don’t expect your customers to care.