Feb 2, 2016
By Alex Kopelyan
Bringing Biotech to the Masses: an Interview with Julie Legault of Amino

Even though biotech has a huge impact on the lives of the general public, it is an intimidating and foreign space to many. The everyday person rarely feels like they can understand and play a role in this massive field.

Amino Labs is making science accessible to the masses by creating an easy to use biokit for the consumer home. I spoke with Julie, the CEO, about her unexpected path to biotech, approaching the field from design, and the impact of an at-home biokit. Check out her pitch live on February 4th on IndieBio’s Demo Day Livestream!

A: Tell me about your background, how did you get interested in the biotech space?

J: I never imagined I would become involved in the biotech space, to be quite honest. It seemed very foreign, complex and closed-off considering my background is in Design and Applied Arts. I’ve been focused on translating important technological advancement into understandable and desirable applications for the broader public – mainly in the field of wearables. I was actually inspired by synthetic biology when I came across the banana smell program from biobuilder in a microfluidics course I was taking to create a wearable. Long story short, I met Natalie Kuldell of Biobuilder and was amazed that a non-scientist like me could hack biology and create a living thing in a few days. A living thing that produced a smell or a pigment! I was inspired by what synthetic biology allowed me to create,  and amazed at how much a similarly simple three-day hands-on experience with bioengineering actually informed my opinion of it – I experienced the creative side of making with biology, and saw all that is possible to create currently and in the future.

A: What problem are you working to solve with your company, Amino?

J: Seeing the reaction of friends with no hands-on experience, and my struggle to recreate a hands-on bioengineering success outside of a workshop or lab, the idea of the Amino One platform came about. An easy playful way for anyone to have the workshop experience in their home or school. Stumbling on a fun and easy hands-on workshop for bioengineering is far from common, yet everyone is affected in one way or another by the products of bioengineering.

At the moment, the science is facing a difficult problem. There is an incredible lag between the importance of synbio and biotechnology in our daily lives and our general perception of it. The applications have tremendous benefits for us, yet society’s view of it is broadly negative.  This is always the case whenever science advances faster than our ability to comprehend it, simply think back to the early days of computers. In this societal context, I saw an opportunity for me to do important, significant work. With my design background and newfound friends in the science world, I was uniquely placed create a hands-on learning platform that could reach a broader audience. This first-hand experience allows individuals to feel entitled to partake in the difficult discussions about ethics, safety, and applications of biotech.

We see the potential of the Amino One to enable millions more people to enter the field of bioengineering and make sure the next generation of problem-solvers is equipped with the right tools and knowledge to produce, create and solve.

A: If you could only pick one thing to validate your reason for forming a startup, what would it be? In other words, what would be the single biggest indicator to you that you are doing the right thing?

J: I can’t imagine a world in which all the power, decision and creation offered through bioengineering rests in the hands of the few and the elite while it influencing our very way of living. Everyone has the basic right to understand where and how new food, fuels, medicines and materials come into existence, and experience the basic of this science first hands to enable them to make informed thoughtful decisions. Furthermore, anyone that desires it should have the chance to try and create safe and imaginative solutions, entertainment, and experiences for their own lives.

A: How do you think success can change your industry?

J: We really believe that throwing open the doors to the science will allow technological advancement in the field to advance significantly faster by allowing the public to partake in critical efforts, development and discussions. For example, the mainstream adoption of computers allowed us to take all the leaps and bounds that brought us us to where we are today: Most of what your phone and computers allow you to do, personally, professionally, socially and on the larger human-scale was made possible by this democratization of computer science. We know that opening up bioengineering in a similar way will allow us to go even further, faster.

A: How is your team uniquely able to tackle this? What’s the expertise?

J: Our expertise ranges from science, synthetic biology, and bioengineering, to mechanical and electrical engineers, software developers and data storytellers, to educators and designers. Having this broad range of skills really makes us uniquely positioned to understand the user experience, the servicing experience and the technical and scientific aspects of it. But mostly, I think it is everyone’s passion for different aspects of the Amino Labs Dream that makes us stand out.

A: Any big lessons learned transitioning to startup entrepreneurship?

J: Considering I had never planned on founding a startup and it all happened organically, the first lesson is be ready for anything!  When my thesis research on Amino ended as I was graduating, it was clear to me that I had to bring the Amino One platform into real people’s hands. Though I still resisted the idea of having a startup, I brought some friends together and, as a team, we rebuilt the prototype from an academic demo into a consumer-ready (almost ready) product. Even though I still am not very comfortable with the idea of having a “startup”, it really is a great experience and sense of achievement to bring your research from some theoretical, somewhat working prototype into something real-world people care about and are willing to have in their house!  

The lesson I learned which applies perhaps mostly to the designers out there is that even though you know compromises will be necessary along the way they will still be difficult. Between usability, function, user experience, aesthetics, price, sustainability, focus, and funding, there are so many things to consider that lead to hard decisions. So trust your instinct, trust your team, but more importantly, trust your actual, real-life users. And keep user-testing! Remember the long term goals… I can’t imagine not having any Amino One, Two or Threes out there in the wild, and if it means compromising on that lush material I had my eye on for the shell, well, so be it.

A: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered so far?

J: Actually, I don’t believe we have faced a major challenge so far. We have been very very fortunate in that way. We do, however, foresee our biggest challenge coming up quickly – we  have the need to scale up production of the Amino One much quicker than expected (which is a good problem to have, but still)! This means entering the large scale manufacturing world. We have a few leads and ideas on how to proceed, but this will definitely be a new experience for most of us.

A: What are the big goals and milestones you’re looking to hit in the short term? Long term?

J: In the short term, we will be shipping out the fifty Amino Ones sold on Indiegogo, all hand-assembled by us in wintery Canada! Following this, we are starting our “workshop series” where we will be visiting schools, museums, fablabs all around the world for 3+ day workshops using Amino One to spread open bioengineering and refine our curriculum and product. The longer term will see us going into larger scale production and shipping out products to schools at the district level before entering the home market in the coming years as we develop more home-centric apps like the ones for brewing and baking.

Get in touch with Julie at julie@amino.bio