Discard Your Risk Aversion

When discussing the development and commercialisation of synthetic biology, as I am wont to do, I encounter an unsurprising aversion to risk-taking among my colleagues. This has the unfortunate effect of preventing many otherwise talented and capable people from applying to rare and exciting programs like Synbio Axlr8r, but it’s unnecessary and easy to resolve.

Scientists are, of course, no strangers to “risk” in the general sense. Indeed, many scientists could be described better as “foolhardy” in their willingness to brave extremes of weather, pressure, temperature, chemistry and the more dangerous corners of biology, merely for the sake of curiosity or a greater purpose. So, I’m not talking about “risk” generally, but “risk of failure”; a frontier the scientists I know are (in the present day at least) less comfortable exploring.

The ‘unsurprising’ part is due to the fact that, at this point, most of the people involved in synthetic biology come from academia; a culture where failure is expected yet not accommodated. Funders may understand that failure is possible, yet still refuse to resume funding future work without positive results. Papers are seldom written or published which document “failures”, even when the failure itself expands the scope of human knowledge and ought rightly to be publishable. This contrasts with the role of academia, which is to offer sanctuary for speculative and usually unprofitable work with the explicit purpose of accommodating failures (a role it still fulfils with moderate adequacy).

Researchers may feel that, given the difficulties staying afloat in their dedicated environment, failure must be unacceptable elsewhere. And while this is seldom a problem for pure science, where commercialisation is not always desirable or possible, there are corners of applied science, particularly in molecular biology and biomedicine, that may be crying out to escape the lab.

The reality is that many business fields outside academia are very risk-tolerant, even welcoming of it. It is often said that the majority of start-ups fail. Of course, the funders of early start-ups know this risk, and still fund; why? Because the pay-off from a successful start-up can more than cover for the loss of three others. More than simply accepting company failures, the culture is welcoming of individual failures; it is also known that most entrepreneurs do not succeed on their first venture; this factoid could not do the rounds as often as it does if entrepreneurs didn’t get so many second chances.

This seems a good fit for scientists who speculate about the uses for their research, so why do so many scientists, offered access to funding and expert mentorship to bring to life a new venture, mumble and dissimulate? Why do bright students with great ideas pay enormous fees to attend competitions and showcase their work, when others will pay them to do the same work? I think one reason may be that, by accepting money for their work, they feel they are obliged to yield a working project, something they cannot guarantee up front. And the other reason, as above, is merely that they feel a failure to make good on that attempt will be held against them in the future.

I would like them, if they are reading, to know that neither concern is worthwhile. If you have an idea, if you know someone who’s always talking about potential technological avenues in synthetic biology or biomedicine, put our money where your mouth is. Sign up for Synbio Axlr8r and give your ideas a chance.

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Jacob Shiach

Program Director at Indie Bio

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