Built with Biology is the innovation network for biological engineers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors who share a passion for using biology to build a better, more sustainable planet. Founded in 2012 as SynBioBeta by John Cumbers, PhD, the recently rebranded Built with Biology provides community members with personal and professional development support, including opportunities for networking, partnership, collaboration, and education.

Frank Tate
Frank Tate
CEO, Built with Biology

In May 2021, Frank Tate was appointed as CEO of Built with Biology. Tate is an interesting choice, carrying a successful business background in the music industry, which ranges from working for MTV’s live specials team to owning an Indie record company. He also created the Bay Area’s biggest family entertainment center, which hosted more than 21,0000 birthday parties in nine years. Tate aims to advance the Built with Biology mission of facilitating a stronger community in biotech and synthetic biology in particular.

Fay Lin, PhD, Senior Editor of GEN Biotechnology, a peer-reviewed sister publication of GEN Edge, sat down with Tate to discuss the organization’s recent re-brand away from SynBioBeta; the power of storytelling to foster collaboration within the biotechnology field; and the excitement surrounding the upcoming Built with Biology conference happening April 12–14 at the Oakland Marriott City Center in California.

[The video and audio of this interview was recorded as an episode of Next GEN by GEN Biotechnology. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity].

GEN Edge: Frank, in your own words, what is the mission of Built with Biology?

Tate: The macro-mission is that we want to celebrate the companies that are using biology to make the planet a better place. When SynBioBeta started, the founder, John Cumbers, built a community and got everybody excited about synthetic biology.

I come from the music business. One of the things that we say in music is that ‘they were an overnight success and a decade in the making.’ I feel like that notion represents the Built with Biology audience. I’m most excited to help companies make the planet a better place by improving storytelling, increasing awareness, and getting people excited about the amazing science that they’re bringing to the market. It feels like an amazing privilege to be here.

GEN Edge: Given that you come from the music business, how did you get involved with the biotech field and Built with Biology?

Tate: I spent my career in the entertainment business. My journey into synthetic biology started when I moved to Hawaii. After a year, we decided that we wanted to stay and I went back to California to sell our property. John Cumbers ended up coming to my garage sale. He came shopping for a desk and ended up buying the house! We hit it off well and of course we’re asking each other, ‘what do you do?’ When he said he worked in synthetic biology, my first question was ‘what’s that? What is artificial, counterfeit biology?’ It sounded bizarre. As he explained more to me, I got more and more excited. The realtors were mad at us because we became friends so fast and they kept saying ‘no, the deal’s not done yet!’

Part of our job in the music business is finding new talent. We call them garage bands. As John was talking, I was thinking that these [synthetic biology companies] are the greatest garage bands that I’ve ever heard! I found it strange because I’m an active investor and I have tons of friends who had never heard of this field before. At that point, I wanted to help John spread the SynBioBeta message by joining the production side as a creative director. In the end, I got into this field through a garage sale!

GEN Edge: Is John still involved with the organization?

Tate: People associate John with SynBioBeta. He’ll always be the founder and kingpin of that community. He played such a key role in all the success that we’re seeing now. For example, with Ginkgo and Twist and all the companies that have gone public, John was there with them from the beginning. He’s super excited about his new start-up, Laltal, which stands for ‘Learn a little, teach a little.’ His full focus is on Laltal now. John’s a starter, not a grower. He’s onto this new project that, in his own words, is going to completely change the way education is done. With his track record, there’s no doubt he’ll do that.

John is a rainmaker. He’s like every lead singer I ever met—he’s brilliant behind a microphone and not so good behind a desk! Where John created this community, we’re now trying to build a movement, which requires a lot more strategy and figuring out what’s next. John’s still very involved. He’ll be at all our live events. We work well together because I love business and he loves science. We’re a really nice match.

GEN Edge: What motivated the re-brand from SynBioBeta to Built with Biology?

Tate: The fact that I didn’t know about synthetic biology was the first ‘Aha!’ moment [that branding may be key]. I’m also a huge fan of case studies. I started doing a case study with all my buddies to say, ‘Hey, do you know what synthetic biology is? If so, what do you think about it?’ It was mind blowing. None of them knew exactly what it was, but at that time, Roundup was huge in the news with that class action lawsuit. They said, ‘Oh yeah, synthetic biology. That’s like Roundup, GMOs, or CRISPR babies.’ Each of their proof points about synthetic biology was almost skewing to nefarious. The more I learned, the more I needed to find out if that’s just my buddies or everybody.

We did a case study on several college campuses where we asked: ‘Do you know what synthetic biology is?’ Almost zero people knew what it was. ‘Do you know what circular economy is?’ No one knew what that was. ‘Do you know what net zero is?’ Again, no great awareness. At that point, I realized, especially coming from the music and entertainment business, that branding is critical.

I usually tell the story this way: The very first vegan I met was an absolute jerk. He had a ‘meat is murder’ shirt and he came up to me when I was eating a burger and started shaming me. I hadn’t even heard of veganism yet, but I was taken aback by this ‘meat is murder’ message. I thought, ‘No, it’s a hamburger. I’ve been eating this my whole life.’ When the slogan pivoted to a ‘plant-based lifestyle,’ that became a much more inviting thing. As soon as I heard it, I went ‘Oh, what’s that? That sounds healthy.’ Now, my daughter and I eat at a place called Herbivores all the time. I love jackfruit nachos and cashew cheese. They really invited us into a healthy story with the plant-based lifestyle.

When we think about SynBioBeta, ‘SynBio’ elicits very little knowledge about the field and was nefarious. ‘Beta’ means that you’re still in a test cycle. I did a case study on biology as well. When I asked people, ‘What do you think about biology?’ 90% of people said, ‘I loved dissecting that frog in high school.’ That was the extent of what they knew of biology, but it wasn’t nefarious. It was very neutral to positive. When you start a movement, you really want to get everybody invited into the story. That’s why we say we’re celebrating the companies using biology to make the planet a better place.

Part of our problem in the country right now is that we’re so bifurcated. You’re either 100% for this or 100% for that. We’ve stopped listening. I have no desire to villainize petroleum or biopharma. I don’t want to say, ‘You guys are bad and we’re better.’ I want to say, ‘You got us here and that’s awesome.’ Now we have these incredible new tools and technologies, and we can partner with the planet instead of pillage it.

GEN Edge: What are some Built with Biology initiatives to increase networking and accessibility in the biotech space?

Tate: I’m most excited about two initiatives. First is Race Against the Clock. At the third day of our Built with Biology conference [April 12–14], we’re partnering with Ginkgo Bioworks. They sponsored 500 tickets for us to invite students and start-ups to come for free, which is mind blowing. The exciting thing is that we’re not just going to Stanford, Harvard, and MIT—the usual suspects for synthetic biology. We’re going to the places that don’t really know a lot about the field. Not only are we inviting those students and start-ups to come for free, but we’ve partnered with a philanthropy company that’s helping us cover their airfare and lodging. I’m so excited about this because we need a diverse pool if we’re really going to make the planet a better place. We need everybody to come to the party because we all bring a different part of the puzzle. We’re trying to invite everybody and make it so much fun. We’re calling it the bioeconomy’s biggest welcome party!

The second initiative is called Field Trip to the Future. It’s based on the idea that most humans ‘can’t see what they can’t see.’ When we talk about what scientists do at the molecular level, many people may not know what we’re talking about. We want to take them on a field trip. For example, it’ll start with a display by Impossible Burgers, as many people don’t realize the heme used in the plant-based meat is actually synthetic biology.

Then we’ll go to Bolt Threads, showing leather grown in the lab and then Geltor, where they have amazing make-up with no animal products. We’ll also show how these companies are printing 3D human organs and other companies are using artificial intelligence (AI) to chase drug discovery. We want to communicate to people, [product #3] isn’t possible yet, but [product #1] wasn’t possible three years ago and [product #2] wasn’t possible two years ago.

We want people to see that we’re making progress in real life. This isn’t just deep science; this is practical products that can change the supply chain and invite the press and general public to the story. Field Trip to the Future is going to go on the road, because we want new talent to see that they can be a part of this field.

GEN Edge: Why should our audience keep an eye out for the Built with Biology conference happening April 12–14 in Oakland, California?

Tate: The reason I’d love to have everybody there is that we’re here to sell networking. We’ve created an amazing program where you can both hear who’s doing what and interact with them. We very strategically have long breaks and we’re encouraging everybody to stay at the conference venue at the Oakland Marriott.

We’re also having a poker party! My favorite company is Solugen: the co-founders, Sean Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti, met at a poker party. So we’re doing a poker party as a tribute to them. Gaurab was a stand-up comedian in college and Sean is still a professional juggler. Together, their genius has created Solugen, a quadruple unicorn now. They’ve [opened a carbon-negative molecule factory that uses bio-based feedstock instead of petroleum]. We’re holding a poker party at the conference because we want to foster those strategic relationships.

Everybody’s welcome. Don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m a journalism or entrepreneurial major. I can’t be at a science conference.’ We especially need you there! Then to all the big businesses, we want you to bring your tribal knowledge to these cutting-edge tools and technologies.

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