Abhay Mahajan, Class of 2026
The purpose of this in-person interview was to better understand the current state of the field of biotechnology. I contacted Dr. Michael Scroggins, a lecturer in the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics. His courses often focus on a variety of aspects of biotechnology, from the ethics of biotechnological research to the business of biotech. Dr. Scroggins graduated with a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Columbia and has a history of involvement regarding biotechnology startups, including the community laboratory BioCurious.
Link to audio recording: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1SJ8W7aBguCXB7USuA5wZTxfRbTeIvt8L/view?usp=drivesdk
This transcript includes a small portion of the interview. The full audio recording is accessible from the link provided above. For the sake of clarity in the transcript, I, Abhay Mahajan will be represented by (AM) and Dr. Michael Scroggins will be represented by (MS).
AM: Hello, this is Abhay Mahajan of the Medical Literature Society, and today I am joined by Dr. Michael Scroggins from UCLA. We are going to be talking about the state of biotech. Would you like to introduce yourself, anything about yourself to start?
MS: Sure, my name is Michael Scroggins. I am an anthropologist. I did my fieldwork in Do-It-Yourself biology in Silicon Valley from the time period of 2011 to 2016. I have been at UCLA since 2017, first as a postdoc in information studies, then as a lecturer in the Institute for Society and Genetics.
AM: So, I heard that you started off by doing cultural anthropology at Columbia. What made you start to get interested in the actual business side of biotech, compared to the jump from pure anthropology and say, “I want to look at how these businesses operate”?
MS: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I was at the program in anthropology and education at the teacher's college at Columbia and my sub fields are anthropology of education and anthropology of science and technology.
When I went to do my fieldwork at Silicon Valley at this DIY Bio lab called BioCurious, I expected to do a dissertation. The kind of dissertation you would write from teacher's colleges about how amateurs learn how to do biology. How do you learn to do biology without the formal strictures of apprenticeship and so forth. So, I thought it would be a kind of classic, informal education kind of topic and it would be very well suited for it.
Well, when I got there, I found they don’t really do much science at all.
AM: Mhm, yea.
MS: But what they did do was, they were very interested in business. They were always launching startups right in the middle of the big startup boom coming out of the recession. And biotech was trying to pick up again and BioCurious had very strong links to Singularity University, which is a private university formed by Ray Kurzweil, and oh I can’t remember the other guy’s name. They have a very strong kind of startup ecosystem around venture capital - venture capital tentacles out into the valley and so forth. And you know, when I was there doing my fieldwork, it was mainly- it was much more about business and the business of startups, and how you launch one, and the personalities involved, and how you woo investors, and how you pitch products and things like that.
Oh, so the glowing plants project came out of BioCurious at that time. I knew all three founders and I followed them throughout their history, especially Kyle, the chief scientist. I was really struck by that had of course a much more scientific bend to it, but it was really dominated by sort of how they presented themselves to the public and to regulators and to investors as a business rather than a scientific endeavor. The science was really, I mean one thing I learned in Silicon Valley is the science is really just taken as a kind of fait accompli. You know something that is to be done, not thought about. It’s just oh yes, we can do this scientifically. Which is interesting because a lot of times they can’t do scientifically what they claim to do. The science does lead, it kind of trails around. That is why I got interested in the business side of it.
At the same time, I had this colleague, Daniel Soulelus, who is now at Copenhagen Business School. We started writing - he did his field in private equity - and we started writing about the business. We started writing about private equity and venture capital together, and things like this, and so it was kind of a natural easy match.
AM: I mean you seem to kind of talk about it in a way that it was similar to how when you go into DIY Bio, it is similar to a dad going to a golf club for the night. Or, you know, it was more of a hobby on the richer side of things. Because I think it was a membership?
MS: Right, yeah so BioCurious was founded by the 6 people who became the board of directors. There was Raymond McCauley, and Kristina Hathaway. They, huh, this is really interesting. They were really the power couple on the board. Raymond worked at Singularity University. Kristina did HR consulting for startups. They - neither of them had lab biology, or lab towards science backgrounds. They - this is kind of interesting - and just to give you an idea of kind of the presentation of self and sort of the narratives of personal achievement that they go along with an, I’m using air quotes here, "an innovative field” like DIY biology; They were deep into this movement at the time called “unmarriage”.
AM: OK what is that?
MS: They had 2 kids together.
MS: Twins. And they lived together.
AM: But they weren’t married.
MS: They weren't married, but they had contractual obligations around their relationship. They had essentially replaced marriage with a series of contractual relationships.
MS: OK. It's a movement that was I wouldn't say it was big in Silicon Valley, but it was-
AM: It was popular?!
MS: I wouldn’t say it was popular, but it was like one of these things that had some pull to it right.
MS: They were written up in, I think it was “Time” or “News Week”, about unmarriage. They were like the poster children this “unmarriage” movement. So, this was Raymond and Kristina. OK.
Eventually as Biocurious started to get very stressful and kind of - I won't say it really failed, but it didn't materialize to what the board hoped it would be materialize into at first- their unmarriage dissolved. It was a sort of sad case - I mean they were a kind of - their relationship was sort of over as BioCurious ended. It was kind of a sad case. So those were two. But, just to give you an idea, they had managed to get themselves in Newsweek by presenting this unmarriage thing as this new innovative way of the future. So, this is a very Silicon Valley kind of way to do things.
Then there was Eri Gentry who was very much one of the public faces of DIY bio. She was from Yale and was a real estate agent in Arizona. In Arizona, she met a man named John Schloendorn. John was a fellow of The SENS Institute. This is Aubrey De Grey's life extension institute. He was at Bruce Rittman’s Lab at Arizona State doing a PhD in molecular biology after getting what exactly it was. John was actually one of the real kinds of pivotal entrepreneurs in DIY Bio. He was kind of unsatisfied pace with of academic research and what he was allowed to do. Also like the red tape involved in academic research.
AM: I mean does that regulation even disappear though when you go to DIY Bio?
MS: Well, what he did was - yeah in a lot of way it does. What he did was, he opened - the way he met Eric was that he opened a lab in like a warehouse space nearby, outside the university. I would say, he would do these he would do experiments that wouldn't pass muster with IRBs and the other kind of regulatory agencies of the university there.
AM: Is that even legal? I mean you can’t go on and go like -
MS: I mean “legal” is a very strong term. I mean, you know, the most infamous ones that they were experimenting with were cancer cells, which was explained to me by John when I interviewed -
AM: Human cancer cells?
MS: Human cancer cells. Yeah, human cells.
MS: Outside - certainly outside the boundaries where I would say where you'd normally find that kind of -. Where it was legal or not, that's a difficult question that I can't really answer but it's certainly provocative. Let me put it that way. OK, so then you have Raymond, Kristina, and Eri, and John. John does not go on to be on board for BioCurious - which I'll come back to again - and then you have Josh Perfetto, who was a hardware technologist and hardware engineer at Silicon Valley. Then Tito Jankowski who - same hardware hardware engineer Josh and Tito had been working on like an open source and jail box and things, and doing PCR, right.
Last one is, I'm gonna blank on this name, he is a super nice guy. He’s a philosopher associated with the transhumanism movement. He had been at LSC. Joseph… It will come to me eventually. Anyways those six became the board of BioCurious. They decided to open a nonprofit lab, and that would be IP neutral.
MS: OK. John didn't join them because John had a start-up called a Immunopath during this time. So, the way John was kind of supporting himself was, he was buying and selling used lab equipment on eBay. There's a lot of -on eBay and Craigslist - there’s so much lab equipment out. He would buy it, refurbish it, and sell it, sell consumables, things like this. Eri and John started a DIY Bio meetup, using literally meetup.com early in the days in their garage in Mountain View. It just so happened that Peter Thiel heard about it and, in one of those kind of very Silicon Valley stories, he showed up at their garage one day. He and John started talking and he funded John's startup Immunopath that was dedicated to curing cancer for these - whatever means John was using to do it.
AM: How did that pan out? How did Immunopath pan out?
MS: They were in business for several years - 3 or 4 years - and then they folded, and I think John has gone back to kind of buying and selling equipment and preparing reagents for sale to other DIY biologists and pharma companies - like really small pharma startups around. When I interviewed him, this was, oh god, 8 years ago now or longer, he was living in Vallejo in the Bay Area upstairs from his lab by the ferry terminal. He would have business meetings and he would just ride the ferry; it was actually a very nice way to live right?
MS: So, he’s living the life of a - like how you would image a 19th century baker living right?
MS: Like he lives over his shop so he just goes down, works in the shop the morning, comes back. He was working from home before it was a thing, right?
MS: Yeah, so he had that going on. He was doing pretty well, and he seemed very comfortable and pretty content.
AM: I was actually going to ask you - because you seem to kind of talk about how you feel that in a way people who do DIY Bio and are not actually like “I got a degree from Harvard for biology” or human biology or whatever, that it's very hard for these DIY biologists to actually be recognized as scientists. Like how a bird watcher could just be a bird watcher, but a scientist could be both a scientist and a bird watcher almost. You know, they have that level of expertise that you can't just get from experience. I was wondering do you feel that you have almost — you would have the same authority to make such a take if you weren't a professor at UCLA?
MS: Well, no. Hahaha. I mean it does give you a perk from which to make these pronouncements.
AM: Right, yes so then do you think there will ever be really change -
MS: Well part of it, part of it, is coming from my experience doing field work as a phD student there and what I saw there. You know, you write these academic documents, and they get deposited and, you know, you're free to observe these things socially. But I would say that the case of DIY Bio was extra complicated for the following reason: A lot of people who are at DIY Bio are actually highly trained laboratory scientists.
MS: This was pretty obvious when I was at BioCurious because there was a huge - there was always a constant influx of PhD students and post-docs who, for various reasons, were not going to get academic jobs or were opting off the academic job market, or who were on their 2nd, 3rd - in sciences it is pretty common - you do 2, 3, 4, sometimes 5 post-docs and you never really get a chance to do your own experiments or to have your own experimental program.
AM: And DIY Bio kind of fills that gap?
MS: DIY Bio, for those people, really fills in a niche where they can do their own experiments.
Certainly, the way the glowing plant project worked out was - it is very illustrative of your point here that there was a community project of BioCurious, of which I was part, called the “bioluminescent community project”, and we were trying to do this crazy thing using IGem components. We were first going to make a glowing BioCurious sign.
AM: Mhm. Out of plants?
MS: Yeah, out of parts from IGem. Just a sign that would light up at night using bioluminescence.
MS: So, we were going to hang it out. Just like literally a neon sign, but with bioluminescence. Ok, so that progressively - and to you, to the question we were talking about before of all the retired tech executives and so forth in here.
MS: There were a lot at that time, especially a lot of retired Tech workers or people who had had successful exits from startups, or retired executives. So, we got talking about this and soon it - pretty soon the project morphed from being “well maybe we don't make a sign. maybe we try to make some kind of novel organism and it has these commercial possibilities”. Well, that went on for a long time and we didn't have any success. We didn't really have anybody who knew about bioluminescence like a professional scientist with a background on the project and we just were spinning on wheels for a long time.
Then, one day, Kyle comes in, and his expertise was certainly not in bioluminescence, but it was in plant biology.
MS: And so, he said “well, you know what we can do? We can kind of naturally evolve this - like oh we can kind of move this from bioluminescence. Maybe we should just be more just in plant biology”. Then along came- from a networking event - came Anthony Evans an Aubrey and they were like “well you know what, actually why don't we make this a plant that glows. We'll just kind of combine these two and make it a commercial venture.”
So it was that, Kyle; He was a PhD at Stanford about to graduate. Plant biology. He did not want to get on the postdoc path and spend all this time where he would have an academic career. Maybe have an academic career - because if there's anything in the sciences, it's a huge overproduction of PhD postdocs.
AM: An overproduction?
MS: Especially at that time. You had more of them than there are jobs in the industry or science at that time.
AM: Do you think it's the same now?
MS: Now I'm not really sure. It’s hard to say. So much has changed during the pandemic. I don't really know how many the biotech field is hoovering up at this moment, but there hasn't been a great explosion, I don't think, in academic jobs. I mean there has been some computer science and information studies. But biotech? I don’t really know. But at that time, partially because of recession - still coming out of the recession and where the economy was, there was a huge glut. So he just looked at it as an opportunity and goes “ oh yea, I can do this”. He was particularly suited because he had once told me as a high school student trying to make an African Violet - was it an African Violet? - glow. He had an interest in bioluminescence and in plant biology.
So, I was like oh this is perfect.
AM: A glowing plant. Yeah.
MS: So, yeah, when I talked to him about it, he was like, “yeah you know I think about this as just this kind of the global educational initiative on some level”. Yes, there's the commercial possibilities, but here I get a chance to really introduce all these people who are interested in “glowing plant” and committed to buy a glowing plant. You know, I publish all my lab results. I publish all the instructions you can follow along at home if you want. It's really kind of this global experiment.
AM: This is how you felt about it?
MS: No, this is how Kyle told me he felt about it when I interviewed about this. I was like, “oh that’s interesting”, right. So, of course, in the end it turned out to fail. It failed. Most startups do fail.
AM: I’m sorry. I was more confused because you say in this case it's more like - and I see that you seem to take this perspective on a lot of your publications that you think maybe biotech is a little too secretive, or people need to share their resources and cooperate with each other. But, at the same time, it almost felt like this is a public funding going into this glowing plant initiative -
MS: It’s not really public funding -
AM: Or I mean individual people who are interested in this, and they say “Ok, I want this to be a product. I am going to put my money in there.”
MS: Ok. What was ethically dubious about glowing plant was what is ethically dubious about a lot of Kickstarter's projects, which is that they sell the product - you have to commit to buy the product before it is produced.
MS: So, there is this leap of faith that not everyone quite understood might not be fulfilled. There is also something quite scientifically dubious about glowing plant which is -
AM: Does it even work?
MS: Does the physics even pixel out, right? Is there enough energy in a tiny plant, in an Arabidopsis plant model, to glow like that. Is that even a possibility? And the answer is, probably not.
So, there is this ethically dubious thing that comes into a lot of Kickstarter projects.
AM: Of course, but to me it feels as if there is some sort of disconnect. As compared to saying, “I want to publish all my data. Everybody, see how I made this plant GLOW”, whether it does or not - or how I am trying to make it glow, and at the same time you are trying to commercialize it?
MS: Kyle felt one way about it, but then inside -
AM: You have to make money.
MS: Inside of the dynamics of the project, a lot of the time the science seems like an afterthought. We will do a lot of things business-wise and then oh yea we will make the science work. So really, this project was steered by Anthony and Kyle was along because he could make it all work.
AM: Moreso he has the ideal of “I want to make this work” and Anthony sort of organizes the whole thing.
MS: Anthony is like “here is how we are going to sell it”, “here is how we are going to organize it”, “here is how we are going to market it”, “here is how we are going to do all this”. And then I think Anthony’s role was to make it work, that kind of thing. So even though the three are co-founders, the dynamics - it is not three equal voices, you know?
*End of Transcript (~20 minute mark)*