The word biotechnology tends to evoke faceless pharmaceutical companies, genetically modified seeds, or the beige facades of MIT’s Kendall square neighborhood. Ron Shigeta wants to change that. Biotechnology, he believes, is a lens through which to see the world, in which the building blocks of products and devices are not finite external resources, but rather the most renewable of materials: life itself.
The chief science officer of Indie Bio, a business incubator that helps fund and develop biotech startups, Shigeta is committed to expanding the definition of biotechnology, arguing that it can and should touch all aspects of our lives, from clothing to brain augmentation. He’s particularly interested in applying biotechnology to global food crises through, for example, companies that “grow” meat, eggs, and seafood in the lab.
A classic early adopter and embracer of the startup world’s culture of “disruption,” Shigeta has little patience for biotech skeptics, including those who invoke the ethical concerns around tinkering with nature. “I don’t call that ethics, I call that a feeling,” he says. He maintains that in the scientific community, “no one is falling asleep at the wheel,” but “there’s a disparity between the people who are actually watching the shop and general public attitude.”
Educated at Princeton, Stanford, and Harvard, Shigeta worked for years at a large genetics company before shifting toward biotech entrepreneurship. When we spoke over Skype, his enthusiasm and optimism was palpable. A man who as a child was immersed in mythology and the fantasy worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, Shigeta now helps others realize what might seem impossible: a machine that reads thoughts, implantable artificial organs, lab-brewed breast milk. “Everybody has these dreams,” he told me. “I find that intoxicating.”
—Meara Sharma for Guernica
Guernica: How do you define biotechnology?
Ron Shigeta: Biotechnology is a set of tools, the way a computer program is a set of tools, or a hammer is a tool. There are just so many things you can build with it. To have living biological technology produce the things that we use and consume is the ideal sort of sustainable technology to make things with. How do things normally get made? Often out of petroleum, or wood. Biotechnology has the potential to make things directly from life.
Our medicine cabinets are full of biotechnology. What we don’t know is a lot of those things come from or are inspired by living things. For high blood pressure or high cholesterol, the drug that you take is probably made from a bacteria that was found in the dirt. The first birth control drug for mass consumption came from a yucca root from Mexico.
What we’re doing is broadening the mission of biotechnology to answer other problems. For example, we have a company that just graduated [from Indie Bio] called MycoWorks, and they have a system for taking sawdust or agricultural waste like straw and growing fungal mycelia—the roots of mushrooms—on that. The mycelia itself makes a little mat. And they’ve learned how to grow that to make leather. Leather is several layers of tissue, but instead of being animal tissue, this is fungal tissue. It has the same texture, the same tensile strength, and the same glossy surface finish that regular leather has. But it takes just a few weeks to grow a pad the size of a cowhide. Cowhide takes three years and thousands of gallons of water to process. Even setting aside issues of sustainability and cruelty, the amount of resources used to make this leather—and the fact that it is biodegradable when it is done and regular leather is not—has really created huge interest within the fashion industry.
Guernica: I gather you’re particularly interested in applying biotechnology to food, through companies like Clara Foods, which brews egg whites from yeast, and Memphis Meats, which is growing meat from cells.
Ron Shigeta: What we have is a new generation of entrepreneurs with various passions that motivate them. In the case of Clara Foods, they’re passionate about removing animals from the food system because at high scale they consider the food system to be inhumane and unsustainable, and it hasn’t improved the quality of food.
When it comes to understanding food, everything we see in the media is all about the very high end. But most of us don’t eat that food every day or very often. There’s eight-plus billion people on the planet, and that’s becoming a problem and people are starting to realize that. We feel that both Memphis Meats and Clara Foods will be producing products that are higher quality than the conventional materials, and at a cost that people can afford to pay long term.
When Clara produces egg whites, they’re all going to be the same grade. They’re all going to be grade A. Or if they can learn how to make grade AAA they will, and everybody will get it.
Guernica: But are these egg whites actually egg whites? Is meat grown from cells actually meat?
Ron Shigeta: Well, the Memphis Meat meatball doesn’t have all of the same fats. But fats in red meat are one of the problems. They can engineer the fats to whatever taste you want. All meat can be tasty but lean. If you want they can still put the same greasy bacon fat in there. It can be just as bad for you as any other meat, or just as good for you.
I’ve had the Clara egg whites. They are delicious. They look just like a high-quality egg white. They are glossy on the top; they have a brown little frilly fringe. You pop them in your mouth and they have this great gel quality. They go down really easy. They’re very tender. It’s awesome.
Guernica: How do you you deal with what I suspect is a very common reaction from consumers—that this isn’t natural, this is tampering with the way things are supposed to be?
Ron Shigeta: I don’t understand this reaction. People hear about this and assume that they’ll have no options. If they want to continue to buy whole eggs or go to the store and buy a filet mignon, there’s not going to be a problem with that. If you feel uncomfortable, please just continue not to change your habits. But I think many people will see the advantage. It’s like when you go to a restaurant and you’ve never had ceviche before—raw fish!—and then you try it and you’re like, Oh, I love ceviche. It becomes a label of an experience you’ve had. This food’s not going to be any different.
Guernica: There’s definitely a novelty aspect to it. But beyond that, if you’re really talking about redefining our concept of where food comes from, redefining agriculture, and possibly changing our food system to replace what we have with what can be grown in a lab, that’s a bigger psychological leap for people.
Ron Shigeta: Are you ready for the truth? The coming storm over food is a lot like climate change. People haven’t been ready to hear about it. And that’s why there’s a lot of resistance. There are some serious problems about our food system and we’re going to need help solving them.
The more work they put into these yeasts and protein products, the cheaper they get. They’ll be able to produce this stuff for under a few dollars a pound. And at that point all these people who make just a few dollars a day, they can afford to eat. And I think that that’s fascinating. I think that’s a real problem to solve.
Guernica: Do you see the organic and slow food movement as a counterpoint to biotechnological progress?
Ron Shigeta: I don’t see it as a counterpoint. I feed my kids organic food all the time. But what I’m asking you to consider is that technology solves problems. It’s neither good nor bad in and of itself. I don’t think you can really seriously make a case that we can all go back to nineteenth-century farming practices and feed everybody. I just don’t think it’s possible. Some people want to try. That’s great. But I think there’s room enough for these efforts to continue on both sides. I don’t understand why people would want to forbid something from being tried in the fear that it might work.
When the automobile came out, the first thing people asked was, What is going to happen to our horses? I haven’t seen any anybody advocating for going back to horses. Because these things aren’t here yet, we’re uncertain.
If people really don’t like it they don’t have to buy it. But I think they will. And biotechnology will not just improve the quality and consistency of food, it will lower the cost and create a sense of security around food.
You know what’s funny? People are really afraid of any biotech in food. But if they have a disease they will gobble it up with both hands. They want the highest tech thing possible. Oh, if I eat this egg that has the same molecular structure as a chicken egg, will that hurt me? But I’m going to inject this protein produced by an organism [insulin] directly into my arm.
Hopefully people will understand that there’s two sides to the coin. It’s not going to be possible to live to your full lifespan in the twenty-first century without taking advantage of biotechnology. If it’s good enough for our most intimate medical problems, it is probably good enough for our clothing and our food and our cars and our homes.
Guernica: Can you tell me about some of Indie Bio’s other companies that aim to affect the human body through biotechnology?
Ron Shigeta: Qidni Labs is one of the most ambitious companies we have funded. They have a model for a replacement implantable kidney. Kidney failure hasn’t had a new treatment created since the 1950s and millions of people a year experience kidney failure worldwide. When you experience kidney failure there really are two options for treatment: dialysis and transplantation. Transplantation might be the more “natural” of the two but donors have to be matched and are scarce—the wait time for a donor organ is often longer than the mean lifetime of a patient on dialysis.
The device they have made is robust and they tested it in a live animal system in just four months, a feat which normally takes a decade to get done. They want to be testing the device in just a few years in people, which is pretty much unheard of even if this is just preliminary testing and not mass market distribution.
There are several reasons to have a real kidney—the organ balances the level of several salts in the blood—but given the realities of donor scarcity, it is a significant improvement over dialysis. And over the generations of versions that may follow, the kidney implant should improve long term. Who knows how it will compare to the natural organ given some time?
Another area that is going to impact the body and human health will be functional foods. We usually think of foods as interacting with us on a nutritive level—as fat, protein, or carbohydrates, for instance. But along the lines of the raw food movement, there are several companies out there now (and more to come) making food that interacts in a living way, as active enzymes or as signals to nudge the body toward a more healthy state. One example is the nutritional supplements that [the companies] Pure Cultures and Animal Biome are working on to create better gut health and deal with digestive disorders like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. These companies are working with animal nutrition right now but the impact on nutrition in the human diet is pretty clear.
Guernica: What do you make of so-called “body hacking”?
Ron Shigeta: I think it’s fascinating. Some people really want to try to experiment with themselves to see what their bodies can do. There are people who changed their diet for a long time to try to see in infrared. They tried to lower the spectrum of their vision by changing the photon receptor in their eyes, which comes from the diet.
I love the positivity of all this. Biology is just another thing that I can try to understand and I might better myself through it, I can identify myself through it. It’s like the way young people used to tinker with their cars. Those people who are tinkerers are going to make some amazing things.
Guernica: All that you are describing seems to be promising on the one hand, and potentially very risky on the other—we’re not sure how such biotechnological advances might affect us in the long run. To what extent are ethics part of your conversations when you’re helping to facilitate these biotech companies?
Ron Shigeta: I’d like to see that risk articulated better, because most people have sort of a feeling. But I don’t call that ethics. I call that a feeling.
There was a survey done recently. Most people think that DNA is a poison. Okay. They don’t know what DNA is. I actually did a calculation—if you eat vegetables and fruits and meat, over the course of a year you ingest about a pound of DNA. And it’s all foreign DNA unless you eat human beings, which very few of us do.
And people are worried about allergies. Clara Eggs and Memphis Meats and other products, for instance—they are exactly genetically identical to the products you get from the store. So you may have an allergic reaction, but it’s the same one you get by buying some meat. Is that an ethical problem? I don’t think so.
Guernica: But take, for instance, CRISPR, the gene-editing technology that’s been getting a lot of attention recently. It is a way to permanently manipulate genetic code—to remove, say, disease-causing traits. It isn’t hard to imagine how tinkering with DNA could go horribly wrong and affect us in ways we don’t yet understand.
Ron Shigeta: There are regulatory systems in place that are fairly conservative but people don’t understand how they work. Most of the CRISPR products are actually removing pieces of DNA from the genome and that’s it. If someone takes twenty or thirty bases out of your genome, are you a different person? Maybe. But it’s not adding anything external to the organism or changing anything about it biologically.
Now there’s the other question of adding genes from other organisms. That can be dicier. But the scientific community has been very careful. They’re not falling asleep at the wheel and they’re not just being in the pockets of some other interests. It’s taken thirty or forty years to work some of these things out but people don’t know about them.
I think people are disappointed to hear a lot of the conversation has already been had. There’s a disparity between the people who are actually watching the shop and general public attitude.
Guernica: How do you close that gap, then?
Ron Shigeta: Well, we can use your help. Scientists are really miserable public speakers. They don’t know how to communicate anything. Anybody who’s got any rhetorical experience whatsoever just rolls right over ’em.
This happened with climate change. For decades, all the public advocates were scientists. And the cost to humanity was just gigantic—an irredeemable loss. I feel like that’s happening with biotech now.
Guernica: With all new technologies there are the people who embrace it fully and dive in right away. And then there are the slower adopters, those who are skeptical or who lack interest. Do you think it’s healthy to have skeptics and slow adopters maintain a fair share of the public?
Ron Shigeta: I think that’s fine. The public opinion is keeping everybody very alert. On the other hand, I think that people are losing opportunity. A lot of people [in the Bay Area] have learned that by interacting early they can stay on the edge of what’s happening and be involved. That’s not a conversation everybody in the world wants to be involved in. But I think a lot of people wish that they had more of that in their community. So if they’re more welcoming of people who are advocates of change and are excited about new things, they might grow faster, they might have some economic advantages. You know, there’s a cost to avoiding innovation.
Guernica: From where you sit, how do you envision the future of the body? What bodily advancements do you expect to see in the coming decades?
Ron Shigeta: The list is very long. We believe that people could live longer. There’s no reason people would die on the average in their eighties. There’s potential for greater health, greater youth and vitality for people. There’s potential for decreasing the gaps between rich and poor. I think biology will help create less inequities in our real life and our bodily life.
We’re trying to understand the mysteries of the brain. We’ve invested in different neuroscience companies, including a software that can actually see thoughts happening in real time, which heretofore has not really been possible. You can see thoughts propagating across the brain as electrical impulses. An MRI takes minutes to acquire images and this just picks it up in a thousandth of a second.
And then we have another company that is creating a little brain on a chip and interfacing that to machines, so the function of the brain can be part of how the machine works. The long goal here is that we’re coming up against the end of Moore’s Law. Computers can’t become more efficient after the next maybe four, five, or six years. But everyone knows that the brain, even though it’s much slower, can do so many things that computers can’t. So this is a way of augmenting machines to have new capabilities they wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s a very longterm plan, but it’s very exciting.