ESA researchers built a plant that can extract oxygen from the moon – Blog – 10 minute

The final frontier: European scientist are hoping they can send an oxygen plant to the moon for a sustainable long-term mission. The facility would convert moon dust into breathable oxygen for the settlers. The mission is still quite far out, but the team hopes to have a viable demonstration of the technology by the middle of this decade.
European Space Agency (ESA) researchers have begun extracting oxygen from simulated moon dust. A reclamation plant has been built at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands that can remove and harness oxygen from lunar regolith. The process leaves behind a mixture of metal alloys, which might also be recycled.
The ESA envisions the oxygen and leftover byproducts being used by lunar settlers for breathable air and rocket fuel.
Simulated lunar soil before (left) and after (right) oxygen extraction
“Having our own facility allows us to focus on oxygen production, measuring it with a mass spectrometer as it is extracted from the regolith simulant,” notes Beth Lomax, lead researcher from the University of Glasgow. “Being able to acquire oxygen from resources found on the Moon would obviously be hugely useful for future lunar settlers, both for breathing and in the local production of rocket fuel.”
While the researchers currently use simulated regolith because of the rarity of actual samples, tests with small amounts of returned moon dust show that it is made up of about 40-45 percent oxygen. It is, in fact, the most abundant element in the material, but is chemically bound to oxides.
The extraction method, called “molten salt electrolysis,” superheats the dust to break the oxide bonds. The regolith is placed in a container with molten calcium chloride salt, which serves as an electrolyte. It is then heated to 950 degrees Celsius. The dust remains solid at this temperature. Then electrical current is run through it, separating the oxygen, which flows through the salt and is collected in an anode.

The method is not novel. It was developed by UK-based Metalysis for metal and alloy production. However, in that capacity, oxygen was an unwanted byproduct that was released instead of collected. In this instance, the alloys are the byproduct, but ESA research fellow Alexandre Meurisse mentioned that they are also interested in what they could do with the metals.
“The production process leaves behind a tangle of different metals,” said Meurisse. “and this is another useful line of research, to see what are the most useful alloys that could be produced from them, and what kind of applications could they be put to.”
The current harvesting plant expels the oxygen as CO2 exhaust, but they plan to modify it to store the element. The ESA eventually wants to transport a version to the moon. The team should have a tech demo ready some time between 2024 and 2026.

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Researchers have used frog cells to create programmable living robots – Blog – 10 minute

In context: As the human race has grown and changed over time, we’ve increasingly become the masters of our own evolution. Through technology, we’ve managed to heal the sick, better protect the young, and extend our lifespans. With the advancement of AI and robotics, we’re even beginning to approach a future where human-like artificial beings may roam the streets.
However, a future where fully intelligent (and perhaps self-aware) robots exist is probably still at least a decade away, if not longer. In the meantime, though, researchers from the University of Vermont (UVM) have managed to create something just as impressive: living, biological robots, also known as “xenobots.”
These bots are neither traditional robots nor ordinary life forms — instead, they’re an unusual hybrid. They were created through the use of a supercomputer and “repurposed” living cells scraped from frog embryos. Once assembled, these cells become a “living, programmable organism,” which could be given a wide range of tasks in the future.
For example, these minuscule organisms could scrape plaque from someone’s arteries, gather microplastic from the world’s oceans, or search for “nasty compounds” and radioactive contamination. Obviously, it’ll be quite some time before the xenobots are allowed to perform any of those tasks, but if that day comes, it’ll be a significant milestone for humanity.

Currently, the xenobots are capable of working together, pushing or carrying objects, walking, and even swimming. They’re small, coming in at roughly 0.7 millimeters, and they can survive in “standard freshwater” warmed (or cooled) to temperatures between 40 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the grand scheme of things, the xenobots don’t live very long — their “pre-loaded” food source is only enough to keep them going for about a week and change. Researchers say that lifespan could be increased to “weeks or months” if a given xenobot is grown in the right environment.
We fully expect plenty of ethical discussions to arise from this research, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, what the UVM research team has managed to accomplish is nothing short of astonishing, and we’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.

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Stanford researchers create miniaturized particle accelerator using infrared light – Blog – 10 minute

The big picture: Researchers at Stanford University have created a miniaturized version of a particle accelerator that fits on a silicon chip. It’s not nearly as powerful as its full-size counterpart in its current iteration, mind you, but researchers believe they can scale the design up to reach the requisite amount of power by the end of 2020.
Traditional particle accelerators utilize microwave bursts to help nudge electrons along. Microwaves measure four inches from peak to trough – far too long for their new accelerator. Instead, the team opted to use infrared light which has a wavelength of just one-tenth the width of a human hair. The reduced wavelength allows electrons to be accelerated in far shorter distances but also means that other aspects of the accelerator must be made to scale – 100,000 times smaller than the structures used in traditional accelerators.

To get there, Stanford engineers used inverse design algorithms which essentially allowed them to work backward, specifying how much light energy they wanted the chip to make. This, in turn, helped guide the researchers in building the correct nanoscale structures to bring the photons into proper contact with the electrons.
As it stands, the prototype accelerator is only able to provide a single stage of acceleration; to be useful for research or medical purposes, electrons need to be accelerated to 95 percent of the speed of light. To get there with the current setup, electrons would need to go through another 1,000 of these stages to reach that level.
That may sound daunting but because the accelerator is a fully integrated circuit, increasing its capabilities shouldn’t be all that difficult. In fact, they expect to get there by the end of the year with a chip that’s no bigger than one inch in size.

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Researchers crack cathode challenge for high-capacity Li-S batteries – Hardware- Tempemail – Blog – 10 minute

Associate Professor Matthew Hill, Dr Mahdokht Shaibani and Professor Mainak Majumder. Source: Monash University.

An international team of researchers led by Dr Mahdokht Shaibani at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Monash University have solved a major constraint holding back the commercial manufacturing of lithium-sulphur batteries.
Lithium-sulphur batteries hold the promise of four times the efficiency of current energy storage based on lithium-ion technology, the researchers said.
This superior performance fades rapidly, however, when the sulphur electrodes are loaded to required levels, thanks to cracks caused by volume changes of 78 percent, which is eight times higher than what takes place in lithium-ion batteries.
The new manufacturing process devised by Dr Shaibani’s team – which includes reaserchers from Monash University, CSIRO, University of Liege and Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology – solves the electrode expansion issue.
Shaibani’s team used a smaller amount of polymer binding material for the cathode, and created more spaced out structures between sulphur particles to prevent the electrode from cracking.
Lithium-sulphur battery prototypes built with the researchers’ electrodes maintain 99 percent efficiency for over 200 charging cycles.
The prototypes have been successfully fabricated by Fraunhofer, and will be tested in Australia early this year in cars and the electric grid, thanks to $2.5 million in government and industry partner funding.
An Australian patent has been filed and approved for the new manufacturing process which was inspired by a bridging architecture first recorded in processing detergent powders in the 1970s.
Associate professor Matthew Hill, who worked with Dr Shaibani, said the Li-S design offers attractive performance, lower manufacturing costs, abundant materials supply with ease of processing and reduced environmental footprint.
If commercially viable, the manufacturing process could produce batteries that enable electric vehicles to drive over 1000 kilometres between charges, and keep smartphones running for five continuous days, the researchers said.
Australia’s lithium value chain is estimated at $213 billion.

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Tyrannosaurus Rex Had an Air Conditioner Built Into Its Skull: Researchers


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One of the frustrating things about studying long-extinct animals is how thoughtless they were. Dinosaurs — already factually* proven to be the coolest creatures to ever exist — were terribly bad at leaving us good examples of their soft tissues to study. Instead of lining up in neat orderly rows under ideal conditions for long-term fossilization, they just died everywhere. This has made it vastly more difficult to study them appropriately. In most cases, fossilization only preserves bone, though faint markings, scratches, or preserved ‘shadows’ sometimes still show where soft tissue existed.

Because we can’t examine soft tissue directly, paleontologists have to study them indirectly, by examining the bone structures that were preserved for millions of years and comparing them with creatures that still exist today. By tracing the evolutionary lineage of still-extant creatures backwards in time to when it converges with now-extinct creatures, scientists can observe how these features evolved and intuit some aspects of how older structures might have functioned.

Researchers examining the skull of Tyrannosaurus Rex have published a paper arguing that these creatures effectively had air conditioners built into their skulls. Maintaining appropriate body temperature can be a challenge in large animals, and many creatures have adapted various strategies for solving the problem. Elephants have large ears to radiate heat from blood vessels and can flap their ears to create cooling air currents. Some large animals spend a great deal of time in or near water to keep their own body temperatures regulated. Some are active mostly at night when temperatures are lower.

Tyrannosaurs, on the other hand, had holes in their skulls. These holes, known as dorsotemporal fenestrae, have long been thought to function as massive anchors for the creature’s huge jaw muscles. These muscles were thought to entirely fill the cavity when the creatures were alive. According to new research published in The Anatomical Record, however, muscles weren’t the only thing tyrannosaurids packed into the space. These fenestrae may have served a dual function by providing important cooling capability as well. They write:

[H]ere we present numerous lines of evidence which indicate that a sizable portion of the dorsotemporal fenestra in crocodylians, non-avian dinosaurs, and many other fossil archosaur lineages was not wholly muscular but instead likely housed vascular tissues. When skull roof tissues were elaborated in fossil specimens, evidence indicates that blood vessels found in the dorsal temporal fossa were often involved in supporting soft tissue cranial display structures… and possibly vascular physiological devices.

Fenestrae-Temperatures

Image and caption from “The Frontoparietal Fossa and Dorsotemporal Fenestra of Archosaurs and Their Significance for Interpretations of Vascular and Muscular Anatomy in Dinosaurs.“

Several factors led the paleontologists to this conclusion. For one thing, the anatomical location of the holes made them a difficult attachment point for the jaw muscles. For another, the bone in this area of the skull is smooth. Attachment points for muscles typically aren’t. To test their theory, the scientists used a FLIR camera and measured the body temperatures of alligators, paying special attention to the temperatures of the dorsotemporal fenestrae. What they found is that these areas of the body are markedly hotter when the alligator is basking in the sun and cooler when it dozes in the shade.

“One of the major physiological challenges that large animals have is being able to shed heat,” Casey Holliday, the leader of the study, told National Geographic. “If big theropod dinosaurs were warm-blooded … then they too probably had challenges dissipating heat in some instances.”

Other dinosaurs, like ankylosaurs, have been found to have large, complex nasal passages filled with blood vessels as a means of dissipating heat. Tyrannosaurids lacked this adaptation, which means the creatures — which were as much as 40 feet long and 20 feet tall — had to dissipate heat through some other means. Radiating it outwards from the skull would protect the creature’s brain from overheating. National Geographic also notes that some dinosaurs had fenestrae that were close to their neck frills, which are thought to have been used in mating and threat signaling. It’s possible that Tyrannosaurus Rex or its family members may have been able to use its blood vessels for color-changing displays, though this is strictly a theory at this juncture.

* – As measured by eight-year-old me.

Top image credit: Scott Robert Anselmo/Wikimedia Commons

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Google to pay security researchers who find Android apps and Chrome extensions misusing user data – gpgmail


Google said it will pay security researchers who find “verifiably and unambiguous evidence” of data abuse using its platforms.

It’s part of the company’s efforts to catch those who misuse user data collected through Android apps or Chrome extensions — and to avoid its own version of a scandal like Cambridge Analytica, which saw millions of Facebook profiles scraped and used to identify undecided voters during the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

Google said anyone who identifies “situations where user data is being used or sold unexpectedly, or repurposed in an illegitimate way without user consent” is eligible for its expanded data abuse bug bounty.

“If data abuse is identified related to an app or Chrome extension, that app or extension will accordingly be removed from Google Play or Google Chrome Web Store,” read a blog post. “In the case of an app developer abusing access to Gmail restricted scopes, their API access will be removed.” The company said abuse of its developer APIs would also fall under the scope of the bug bounty.

Google said it isn’t providing a reward table yet but a single report of data misuse could net $50,000 in bounties.

News of the expanded bounty comes in the wake of the DataSpii scandal, which saw browser extensions scrape and share data from millions of users. These Chrome extensions uploaded web addresses and webpage titles of every site a user visited, exposing sensitive data like tax returns, patient data, and travel itineraries.

Google was forced to step in and suspend the offending Chrome extensions.

Instagram recently expanded its own bug bounty to include misused user data following a spate of data incidents,


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Researchers look into keeping autonomous vehicles from becoming mobile vomitoriums – gpgmail


If you’re like me, and I’m just going to assume most of you are, motion sickness is a serious consideration on any car trip where you’re not driving. So what are we supposed to do in self-driving vehicles? Researchers are finally looking into this question with an experiment designed to see just what makes people like us so sick.

The study, at the University of Michigan, was undertaken because the researchers realized that if millions of people can’t read or do work in autonomous vehicles, that massively reduces the draw of using them in the first place. And it turns out there has been almost no investigation of why certain people get motion sickness in this context, what makes it better or worse, and so on.

“Very few studies have been conducted in cars; instead, a lot of the work has been done for sea and air transportation modes, performed in driving simulators or on motion platforms,” explained lead investigator for the project, Monica Jones, in a university news release. “A lot of scales that exist in the literature are based on nausea. If we design to a vomiting response, we have really missed the mark on autonomous vehicles.”

Basically the cars should be designed around making people actually comfortable, not stopping just short of losing their lunch. What does that even consist of? That’s what these initial experiments are meant to explore.

The team collected 52 people from a variety of demographics and had them sit in the car while it navigated the university’s Mcity Test Facility, a sort of mock urban environment meant for exactly this kind of work. The drive involved the usual turns, stops and accelerations you would experience being driven around a city, and participants were asked to perform some basic tasks on an iPad and answer questions posed by a researcher in the car. I can tell you I’m feeling queasy just thinking about taking part.

They were observed for indications of discomfort and were told to report any such feelings — and of course let the researchers know if they needed to stop. Sensors watched for changes in temperature or perspiration, among other things.

The early findings (PDF) are not exactly surprising, but they’re a start. It may not be front page news that people using a gadget while in a self-driving car tended to feel more sick. But no one has ever actually studied this, so if we’re going to treat it seriously one way or the other, it needs to be directly observed. And indeed there were other factors that cropped up as well. Younger people reported higher motion sickness levels, for instance. Why? When?

“Passenger responses are complicated and have many dimensions,” said Jones. And to measure those responses the team built up a database of thousands of measurements and observations that extend beyond a simple “misery scale,” but include context and other types of pain or discomfort.

This is just the beginning of what is sure to be a longer-term study of how to make self-driving vehicles as inclusive — and popular — as possible. Certainly if they get to the bottom of it, I (and all of you out there like me) will be much more likely to use an AV for my daily commute.


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Privacy researchers devise a noise-exploitation attack that defeats dynamic anonymity – gpgmail


Privacy researchers in Europe believe they have the first proof that a long-theorised vulnerability in systems designed to protect privacy by aggregating and adding noise to data to mask individual identities is no longer just a theory.

The research has implications for the immediate field of differential privacy and beyond — raising wide-ranging questions about how privacy is regulated if anonymization only works until a determined attacker figures out how to reverse the method that’s being used to dynamically fuzz the data.

Current EU law doesn’t recognise anonymous data as personal data. Although it does treat pseudoanonymized data as personal data because of the risk of re-identification.

Yet a growing body of research suggests the risk of de-anonymization on high dimension data sets is persistent. Even — per this latest research — when a database system has been very carefully designed with privacy protection in mind.

It suggests the entire business of protecting privacy needs to get a whole lot more dynamic to respond to the risk of perpetually evolving attacks.

Academics from Imperial College London and Université Catholique de Louvain are behind the new research.

This week, at the 28th USENIX Security Symposium, they presented a paper detailing a new class of noise-exploitation attacks on a query-based database that uses aggregation and noise injection to dynamically mask personal data.

The product they were looking at is a database querying framework, called Diffix — jointly developed by a German startup called Aircloak and the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems.

On its website Aircloak bills the technology as “the first GDPR-grade anonymization” — aka Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which began being applied last year, raising the bar for privacy compliance by introducing a data protection regime that includes fines that can scale up to 4% of a data processor’s global annual turnover.

What Aircloak is essentially offering is to manage GDPR risk by providing anonymity as a commercial service — allowing queries to be run on a data-set that let analysts gain valuable insights without accessing the data itself. The promise being it’s privacy (and GDPR) ‘safe’ because it’s designed to mask individual identities by returning anonymized results.

The problem is personal data that’s re-identifiable isn’t anonymous data. And the researchers were able to craft attacks that undo Diffix’s dynamic anonymity.

“What we did here is we studied the system and we showed that actually there is a vulnerability that exists in their system that allows us to use their system and to send carefully created queries that allow us to extract — to exfiltrate — information from the data-set that the system is supposed to protect,” explains Imperial College’s Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, one of five co-authors of the paper.

“Differential privacy really shows that every time you answer one of my questions you’re giving me information and at some point — to the extreme — if you keep answering every single one of my questions I will ask you so many questions that at some point I will have figured out every single thing that exists in the database because every time you give me a bit more information,” he says of the premise behind the attack. “Something didn’t feel right… It was a bit too good to be true. That’s where we started.”

The researchers chose to focus on Diffix as they were responding to a bug bounty attack challenge put out by Aircloak.

“We start from one query and then we do a variation of it and by studying the differences between the queries we know that some of the noise will disappear, some of the noise will not disappear and by studying noise that does not disappear basically we figure out the sensitive information,” he explains.

“What a lot of people will do is try to cancel out the noise and recover the piece of information. What we’re doing with this attack is we’re taking it the other way round and we’re studying the noise… and by studying the noise we manage to infer the information that the noise was meant to protect.

“So instead of removing the noise we study statistically the noise sent back that we receive when we send carefully crafted queries — that’s how we attack the system.”

A vulnerability exists because the dynamically injected noise is data-dependent. Meaning it remains linked to the underlying information — and the researchers were able to show that carefully crafted queries can be devised to cross-reference responses that enable an attacker to reveal information the noise is intended to protect.

Or, to put it another way, a well designed attack can accurately infer personal data from fuzzy (‘anonymized’) responses.

This despite the system in question being “quite good,” as de Montjoye puts it of Diffix. “It’s well designed — they really put a lot of thought into this and what they do is they add quite a bit of noise to every answer that they send back to you to prevent attacks”.

“It’s what’s supposed to be protecting the system but it does leak information because the noise depends on the data that they’re trying to protect. And that’s really the property that we use to attack the system.”

The researchers were able to demonstrate the attack working with very high accuracy across four real-world data-sets. “We tried US censor data, we tried credit card data, we tried location,” he says. “What we showed for different data-sets is that this attack works very well.

“What we showed is our attack identified 93% of the people in the data-set to be at risk. And I think more importantly the method actually is very high accuracy — between 93% and 97% accuracy on a binary variable. So if it’s a true or false we would guess correctly between 93-97% of the time.”

They were also able to optimise the attack method so they could exfiltrate information with a relatively low level of queries per user — up to 32.

“Our goal was how low can we get that number so it would not look like abnormal behaviour,” he says. “We managed to decrease it in some cases up to 32 queries — which is very very little compared to what an analyst would do.”

After disclosing the attack to Aircloak, de Montjoye says it has developed a patch — and is describing the vulnerability as very low risk — but he points out it has yet to publish details of the patch so it’s not been possible to independently assess its effectiveness. 

“It’s a bit unfortunate,” he adds. “Basically they acknowledge the vulnerability [but] they don’t say it’s an issue. On the website they classify it as low risk. It’s a bit disappointing on that front. I think they felt attacked and that was really not our goal.”

For the researchers the key takeaway from the work is that a change of mindset is needed around privacy protection akin to the shift the security industry underwent in moving from sitting behind a firewall waiting to be attacked to adopting a pro-active, adversarial approach that’s intended to out-smart hackers.

“As a community to really move to something closer to adversarial privacy,” he tells gpgmail. “We need to start adopting the red team, blue team penetration testing that have become standard in security.

“At this point it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find like a perfect system so I think what we need to do is how do we find ways to see those vulnerabilities, patch those systems and really try to test those systems that are being deployed — and how do we ensure that those systems are truly secure?”

“What we take from this is really — it’s on the one hand we need the security, what can we learn from security including open systems, verification mechanism, we need a lot of pen testing that happens in security — how do we bring some of that to privacy?”

“If your system releases aggregated data and you added some noise this is not sufficient to make it anonymous and attacks probably exist,” he adds.

“This is much better than what people are doing when you take the dataset and you try to add noise directly to the data. You can see why intuitively it’s already much better.  But even these systems are still are likely to have vulnerabilities. So the question is how do we find a balance, what is the role of the regulator, how do we move forward, and really how do we really learn from the security community?

“We need more than some ad hoc solutions and only limiting queries. Again limiting queries would be what differential privacy would do — but then in a practical setting it’s quite difficult.

“The last bit — again in security — is defence in depth. It’s basically a layered approach — it’s like we know the system is not perfect so on top of this we will add other protection.”

The research raises questions about the role of data protection authorities too.

During Diffix’s development, Aircloak writes on its website that it worked with France’s DPA, the CNIL, and a private company that certifies data protection products and services — saying: “In both cases we were successful in so far as we received essentially the strongest endorsement that each organization offers.”

Although it also says that experience “convinced us that no certification organization or DPA is really in a position to assert with high confidence that Diffix, or for that matter any complex anonymization technology, is anonymous”, adding: “These organizations either don’t have the expertise, or they don’t have the time and resources to devote to the problem.”

The researchers’ noise exploitation attack demonstrates how even a level of regulatory “endorsement” can look problematic. Even well designed, complex privacy systems can contain vulnerabilities and cannot offer perfect protection. 

“It raises a tonne of questions,” says de Montjoye. “It is difficult. It fundamentally asks even the question of what is the role of the regulator here?

When you look at security my feeling is it’s kind of the regulator is setting standards and then really the role of the company is to ensure that you meet those standards. That’s kind of what happens in data breaches.

“At some point it’s really a question of — when something [bad] happens — whether or not this was sufficient or not as a [privacy] defence, what is the industry standard? It is a very difficult one.”

“Anonymization is baked in the law — it is not personal data anymore so there are really a lot of implications,” he adds. “Again from security we learn a lot of things on transparency. Good security and good encryption relies on open protocol and mechanisms that everyone can go and look and try to attack so there’s really a lot at this moment we need to learn from security.

“There’s no going to be any perfect system. Vulnerability will keep being discovered so the question is how do we make sure things are still ok moving forward and really learning from security — how do we quickly patch them, how do we make sure there is a lot of research around the system to limit the risk, to make sure vulnerabilities are discovered by the good guys, these are patched and really [what is] the role of the regulator?

“Data can have bad applications and a lot of really good applications so I think to me it’s really about how to try to get as much of the good while limiting as much as possible the privacy risk.”


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Biotech researchers venture into the wild to start their own business – gpgmail


Much of Silicon Valley mythology is centered on the founder-as-hero narrative. But historically, scientific founders leading the charge for bio companies have been far less common.

Developing new drugs is slow, risky and expensive. Big clinical failures are all too common. As such, bio requires incredibly specialized knowledge and experience. But at the same time, the potential for value creation is enormous today more than ever with breakthrough new medicines like engineered cell, gene and digital therapies.

What these breakthroughs are bringing along with them are entirely new models — of founders, of company creation, of the businesses themselves — that will require scientists, entrepreneurs and investors to reimagine and reinvent how they create bio companies.

In the past, biotech VC firms handled this combination of specialized knowledge + binary risk + outsized opportunity with a unique “company creation” model. In this model, there are scientific founders, yes; but the VC firm essentially founded and built the company itself — all the way from matching a scientific advance with an unmet medical need, to licensing IP, to having partners take on key roles such as CEO in the early stages, to then recruiting a seasoned management team to execute on the vision.

Image: PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

You could call this the startup equivalent of being born and bred in captivity — where great care and feeding early in life helps ensure that the company is able to thrive. Here the scientific founders tend to play more of an advisory role (usually keeping day jobs in academia to create new knowledge and frontiers), while experienced “drug hunters” operate the machinery of bringing new discoveries to the patient’s bedside. This model’s core purpose is to bring the right expertise to the table to de-risk these incredibly challenging enterprises — nobody is born knowing how to make a medicine.

But the ecosystem this model evolved from is evolving itself. Emerging fields like computational biology and biological engineering have created a new breed of founder, native to biology, engineering and computer science, that are already, by definition, the leading experts in their fledgling fields. Their advances are helping change the industry, shifting drug discovery away from a highly bespoke process — where little knowledge carries over from the success or failure of one drug to the next — to a more iterative, building-block approach like engineering.

Take gene therapy: once we learn how to deliver a gene to a specific cell in a given disease, it is significantly more likely we will be able to deliver a different gene to a different cell for another disease. Which means there’s an opportunity not only for novel therapies but also the potential for new business models. Imagine a company that provides gene delivery capability to an entire industry — GaaS: gene-delivery as a service!

Once a founder has an idea, the costs of testing it out have changed too. The days of having to set up an entire lab before you could run your first experiments are gone. In the same way that AWS made starting a tech company vastly faster and easier, innovations like shared lab spaces and wetlab accelerators have dramatically reduced the cost and speed required to get a bio startup off the ground. Today it costs thousands, not millions, for a “killer experiment” that will give a founding team (and investors) early conviction.

What all this amounts to is scientific founders now have the option of launching bio companies without relying on VCs to create them on their behalf. And many are. The new generation of bio companies being launched by these founders are more akin to being born in the wild. It isn’t easy; in fact, it’s a jungle out there, so you need to make mistakes, learn quickly, hone your instincts, and be well-equipped for survival. On the other hand, given the transformative potential of engineering-based bio platforms, the cubs that do survive can grow into lions.

Image via Getty Images / KTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

So, which is better for a bio startup today: to be born in the wild — with all the risk and reward that entails — or to be raised in captivity

The “bred in captivity” model promises sureness, safety, security. A VC-created bio company has cache and credibility right off the bat. Launch capital is essentially guaranteed. It attracts all-star scientists, executives and advisors — drawn by the balance of an innovative, agile environment and a well-funded, well-connected support network. I was fortunate enough to be an early executive in one of these companies, giving me the opportunity to work alongside industry luminaries and benefit from their well-versed knowledge of how to build a world-class bio company with all its complex component parts: basic, translational, clinical research, from scratch. But this all comes at a price.

Because it’s a heavy lift for the VCs, scientific founders are usually left with a relatively small slug of equity — even founding CEOs can end up with ~5% ownership. While these companies often launch with headline-grabbing funding rounds of $50m or above, the capital is tranched — meaning money is doled out as planned milestones are achieved. But the problem is, things rarely go according to plan. Tranched capital can be a safety net, but you can get tangled in that net if you miss a milestone.

Being born in the wild, on the other hand, trades safety for freedom. No one is building the company on your behalf; you’re in charge, and you bear the risk. As a recent graduate, I co-founded a company with Harvard geneticist George Church. The company was bootstrapped — a funding strategy that was more famine than feast — but we were at liberty to try new things and run (un)controlled experiments like sequencing heavy metal wildman Ozzy Osbourne.

It was the early, Wild West days of the genomics revolution and many of the earliest biotech companies mirrored that experience — they weren’t incepted by VCs; they were created by scrappy entrepreneurs and scientists-turned-CEO. Take Joshua Boger, organic chemist and founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals: starting in 1989 his efforts to will into existence a new way to develop drugs, thrillingly captured in Barry Werth’s The Billion-Dollar Molecule and its sequel The Antidote in all its warts and nail-biting glory, ultimately transformed how we treat HIV, hepatitis C and cystic fibrosis.

Today we’re in a back-to-the-future moment and the industry is being increasingly pushed forward by this new breed of scientist-entrepreneur. Students-turned-founder like Diego Rey of in vitro diagnostics company GeneWEAVE and Ramji Srinivasan of clinical laboratory Counsyl helped transform how we diagnose disease and each led their companies to successful acquisitions by larger rivals.

Popular accelerators like Y Combinator and IndieBio are filled with bio companies driven by this founder phenotype. Ginkgo Bioworks, the first bio company in Y Combinator and today a unicorn, was founded by Jason Kelly and three of his MIT biological engineering classmates, along with former MIT professor and synthetic biology legend Tom Knight. The company is not only innovating new ways to program biology in order to disrupt a broad range of industries, but it’s also pioneering an innovative conglomerate business model it has dubbed the “Berkshire for biotech.”

Like the Ginkgo founders, Alec Nielsen and Raja Srinivas launched their startup Asimov, an ambitious effort to program cells using genetic circuits, shortly after receiving their PhDs in biological engineering from MIT. And, like Boger, renowned machine learning Stanford professor Daphne Koller is working to once again transform drug discovery as the founder and CEO of Instiro.

Just like making a medicine, no one is born knowing how to build a company. But in this new world, these technical founders with deep domain expertise may even be more capable of traversing the idea maze than seasoned operators. Engineering-based platforms have the potential to create entirely new applications with unprecedented productivity, creating opportunities for new breakthroughs, novel business models, and new ways to build bio companies. The well-worn playbooks may be out of date.

Founders that choose to create their own companies still need investors to scrub in and contribute to the arduous labor of company-building — but via support, guidance, and with access to networks instead. And like this new generation of founders, bio investors today need to rethink (and re-value) the promise of the new, and still appreciate the hard-earned wisdom of the old. In other words, bio investors also need to be multidisciplinary. And they need to be comfortable with a different kind of risk: backing an unproven founder in a new, emerging space. As a founder, if you’re willing to take your chances in the wild, you should have an investor that understands you, believes in you, can support you and, importantly, is willing to dream big with you.


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