Hey Hackers! I’m Kahlil Corazo, and I’m the Project Manager of AccessibleGenomics.org.
First of all, a huge thank you to the HackerNoon community and staff for nominating me for a 2021 Noonies award! I’ve been nominated in the following categories; please do check out these award pages and vote:
As someone in the developing world, I believe that the most exciting technology of the present is open-source synthetic biology because, like open-source software, it will open up so many good things for us outside the developed world. Learn more about my thoughts and opinions on open-source synthetic biology and my journey in the tech industry via the interview below.
You may remember May 2020, just at the start of the lockdowns due to the pandemic. I remember it quite well because I never felt so powerless in my life. I’m an entrepreneur, so I had this self-belief that I was the master of my fate, that I could influence the future. Yet, at that time, I was simply a prisoner of circumstance.
Before the pandemic, I was already nerding out on nanopore sequencing. I was so interested because it allowed resource-constrained labs to finally have access to genetic sequencing. In the past, sequencing machines used to cost more than a car and were as big as refrigerators. But the MinION sequencer from Oxford Nanopore Technologies was as small as an iPhone and cheaper than one.
I found an escape from my prison through that nerdy interest. I was not going to sit back and do nothing in this pandemic. I was going to contribute to facing it. When I reached out to the other nanopore nerds I met on Twitter, they immediately got the situation.
Since we were in this world of genomics, we knew that communities need to sequence SARS-CoV-2 and track its most transmissible and deadliest variants. Yet, in the developing world, only a few labs have genetic sequencers. Why not send MinIONs to these labs and give them trainings?
So we built a global team of volunteer students and scientists. We got a microgrant from Just One Giant Lab (JOGL.io), an open-science platform. We partnered with a lab in rural Philippines, PGC Mindanao. We organized trainings for their molecular biologists and bioinformaticians.
In 10 months, that lab made history: the first sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 enabled by volunteers, and the first on-site sequencing of any organism in the region of Mindanao, Philippines. Here’s the pre-print. Here’s the project management lessons learned.
The adventure did not stop there. Through that project, we discovered a more fundamental problem in doing molecular biology in the developing world: access to reagents.
We thought that the biggest threat in Project Accessible Genomics was the difficulty of training local personnel in sample preparation, sequencing, and bioinformatics. However, it turned out that as long as you have experienced molecular biologists and bioinformaticians, the technology is at the stage that training can just be done online.
What almost killed the project, however, was access to reagents, the special chemicals you need to prepare samples for sequencing. We need to buy all of these reagents from the US or Europe. These are already expensive for a lab in the developing world. Then you need to pay for their transportation through a cold chain. And during the project, we found out that you also need to pay gatekeepers, both legal rent-seekers and corrupt ones!
You could skip all these if you can manufacture reagents locally. Now is the time because of recent progress in open-source wetware and software, and lower-cost hardware. That was the topic of my Hackernoon article.
Since writing that piece, I and some of my teammates from Project Accessible Genomics have started molave.bio, which will manufacture basic lab reagents for the local market. We are building with the garage door open: biokahlil.substack.com
In 2018, I read Naval’s now-iconic Twitter thread, How to get rich (without getting lucky). I decided to make it my entrepreneurship OS. A key principle in that playbook is to bypass competition by following your genuine interests.
I already built a company at that time, which was paying the bills but not scaling. I felt I needed to do more and something different. So I simply followed whatever I was most interested in and solved problems right in front of me.
The domain that captured my curiosity (e.g., measured by the kinds of journal articles I read) was biology in general. So I enrolled in a master’s program. Digging further into my interests led me to genomics. The pandemic disrupted my schooling, but I learned so much more in running Project Accessible Genomics than school.
The problem right in front of me now can be solved with synthetic biology, so I’m going through a steep learning curve right now in that domain. I just need to know enough to work with my scientist colleagues. My role is to do the dirty work so that the scientists can do more science.
I’m just so fascinated by this domain, and I love working with super smart people!
Synthetic biology is the application of engineering principles to biology. We now have a much better understanding of genomics and the translation of genes into proteins that form components of living bodies. We also have better instruments to make sense of this microscopic world and to make precise modifications.
Because of these advancements, it is now possible to produce complex and valuable molecules through engineered bacteria and fungi. When insulin was first synthesized through engineered bacteria in the late 70s’ (which has saved millions of lives) this capability was limited to massive biotech companies in the developed world. Today, companies in Africa (which we are currently aiming to replicate) are using similar techniques to produce lab reagents locally.
The most valuable products of synthetic biology will be medicines, hormones and other products for human health. The same technology can be used for agriculture and food security. Synthetic biology is producing enzymes for labs, manufacturing plants, and as components of consumer goods.
Complex molecules that cannot be produced any other way are the tip of the spear. At some point, substances produced through synthetic biology could replace products from petrochemical (like some components of fragrances) or harvest from animals (e.g., collagen from cows).
Your spidey sense might have been tingling as you read the previous sections. With great power comes great responsibility. Some areas of synthetic biology have risks to the scientists working in those domains. And like any technology, synthetic biology could be used for criminal activity.
I’d invest in startups solving problems I’m curious about. It will be lots of fun.
I’m currently learning Spanish. I’m visiting Mexico for the first time next month. I’ve also been learning Olympic weightlifting from the first coach of the first Olympic gold medalist of my country, the Philippines.
Great advice happens when you know the person and their situation, and you have first-hand experience in the area you are advising. I may have given some good advice in the past, but they are probably useless to the reader. And I have no idea which ones were actually valuable.
I guess the spirit of this question is to share something useful to the reader. I prefer playbooks instead of advice in these cases. Here are some of my favorite playbooks:
I prefer playbooks over advice. There are two that stand out:
The annual Noonie Awards celebrate the best and brightest of the tech industry, bringing together all who are making the Internet and the world of tech what it is today. Please be sure to check out our award categories, nominate, and vote for the people and companies who you think are making the biggest impact on the tech industry today.