In 1962, the landmark book, Silent Spring, created a global environmental consciousness that led to countless climate conferences, strict environmental regulations throughout the world, and a plethora of researchers tackling issues from local pollution to global warming. Despite all this, research appears to be conducted in a piecemeal fashion, with little to link ideas, researchers, and potential funders together.

That piecemeal approach was especially frustrating for researchers Paul Reginato, PhD, and Daniel Goodwin, PhD, co-founders of Homeworld Collective, when they entered the field of climate biotech research.

“We started this because of ourselves,” Goodwin admits.

He and Reginato met in Ed Boyden’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). One was doing in situ DNA sequencing and the other in situ RNA sequencing, but both found they were drawn to climate biotech as their lives’ work.

Daniel Goodwin, PhD, co-founder of Homeworld Collective

“We were confident the biotech industry had the resources for this field and were confident we could find a project [easily]…but we couldn’t find one at first,” Goodwin says, despite being what he modestly characterizes as “decently competent.”

Idea generation wasn’t the problem. Reginato and Goodwin shared ideas, killed them, and developed others in a continuous cycle, talking with hundreds of people one-on-one and at workshops.

As they soon realized that “there’s not the same funding [ecosystem] in climate biotech research as there is in medical biotech, and there aren’t the same playbooks for success or connectivity,” Goodwin says. When the two, plus Sarah Sclarsic (who later became a founding partner of venture capital firm Voyager), contemplated carbon removal, the right problems weren’t immediately obvious, Reginato recalls.

“Carbon dioxide removal will become one of the world’s largest industries in the coming decades,” Reginato predicts, “but there’s not a strong community around it in biotech.” They began identifying the constraints, areas in which biotech could contribute, the type of work needed and who could do it.

Creating an opportunity roadmap

That work led to the Homeworld Collective, which aims to help climate biotech scientists answer these fundamental questions:

  1. What problems should I work on?
  2. How do I get funding?
  3. Where can I get input from potential investors?
  4. Where can I find the best colleagues to work with?

One of Reginato and Goodwin’s most significant projects is the roadmap of opportunities in biotech for carbon dioxide removal, which is part of the global decarbonization effort. Reginato recently completed the first chapter, which identifies actionable projects. “It’s at a level of granularity that someone can get started,” he says.

Paul Reginato, PhD, co-founder of Homeworld Collective

The team believes that simply having such a playbook will change how individuals understand the field and interact within it, thus increasing the rate of innovation.

Geobiotechnology is another area of budding interest for Homeworld Collective. Reginato and Goodwin say it is essential to developing a cleaner, more ecologically-sound mining industry.

“It hasn’t been an area of focus for funding, but there are new possibilities to use biology for more efficient mining,” Reginato says.

Already, some 20% of copper mining involves biological mechanisms. Applications include using microbes to dissolve minerals and extract metals, or to bind to specific metals to enable more efficient mining. Emerging innovations have the potential to further expand the use of clean, bio-based technologies.

Building community

By providing that foundational information, Goodwin and Reginato hope to catalyze the type of exponential growth in the climate biotech industry that CRISPR created in the biopharma industry.

“That’s really hard,” Goodwin admits. Nonetheless, they have a plan.

“The first step is building community,” Reginato says. With strong networks, it is easier for researchers to connect, identify emerging problem areas, and find corresponding research opportunities.

“Right now, we’re adding a lot of energy, which is what we’ve been funded to do,” continues Reginato. “We love the opportunity to get people who never would have geeked out, to geek out,” Goodwin adds. They estimate they’ve interacted with some 500 people in the climate biotech space.

In a sense, Homeworld Collective is trying to replicate the type of casual, cross-disciplinary conversations the pair had in the hallways at MIT.

They’ve found that online chat groups don’t scale well, and are beginning to expand to public events. They’ve hosted one workshop already, on the interface of AI and wet labs for AI-powered experimentation, and are beginning to host pop-up groups around the United States to help those in the community grow their networks.

Currently, there’s no flagship conference for climate biotech, Reginato and Goodwin point out. They say they’re considering options to fill that void. “We’re trying to identify opportunities and to help them be realized external to our organization,” Reginato explains.

Homeworld Collective also is starting a newsletter to connect more people.

The objective of all this outreach is to build a multidisciplinary ecosystem with a rich set of working knowledge in the climate biotech space, according to Reginato. Ideally, it eventually will match what he calls “medical biotech’s gold standard for hyperproductivity.”

Increasing funding options

Historically, climate research in the United States has been funded mainly by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

There is a misconception that a lot of money goes into climate research. The actual figure is about 1.5%, based on Homeworld’s preliminary analysis of approximately 180,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grants funded between 2009 and now. Only about 11,000 of those grants included both biology and climate keywords. They comprised 6.4% of the NSF budget. At the Department of Energy, of the 180,000 papers listing funders, only 9,000 mention proteins, and about 1,000 of those involved engineering efforts.

“Philanthropy could be much more involved than it is,” notes Goodwin. Attracting philanthropic attention—which the decarbonization roadmap is doing—could increase climate biotech research opportunities significantly and assure scientists that this is a sustainable career path.

Homeworld Collective also aims to formalize the financial path for a variety of verticals within the field of climate biotech, similar to established paths in biopharma. “In biopharma, each step of the journey is priced out, from basic research to new drug approval,” Goodwin says. Developing similar metrics for climate biotech, he suggests, will help the field grow faster and attract more talent.

Success means replicating the phase change that occurred in the biopharma industry in the climate biotech industry, Goodwin and Reginato say. Specifically, they want this community to:

  • Have access to additional funding
  • Be able to take “big, if true” shots on goal
  • Enjoy vibrant connectivity across fields
  • Transfer knowledge among disciplines
  • Engage in casual yet technological conversations.

Half a century since the first Earth Day and 33 years since it went global, there’s still no cohesive network of climate researchers. The field needs a roadmap for success.

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