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A design for life

Austen Heinz stood at the window of his apartment, the street lights of San Francisco reduced to dots of dancing fire in the movement of his eyes. Dressed in his usual outfit of flip-flops, blue jeans and a North Face fleece over an unbuttoned shirt, his rock-star-ish hair fell across his shoulders. At school, back in North Carolina, he’d been bullied, sometimes badly – the combination of his physical slightness and social illiteracy had seen to that. They’d called him “The Professor”. He had a kind of genius for absorbing large amounts of complex information at great speed and when he arrived at an opinion, often after a period of intense labour, he’d announce it provocatively
and unapologetically.

Austen was bad at reading people. He’d struggled to find friends and with his mental health. But now, at the age of 30, he was living a few blocks from his own laboratory, in a high-rise apartment in San Francisco’s tech district, looking out over 180-degree views of the Bay Bridge, the AT&T ballpark and the stunning harbour. He was a Silicon Valley start-up founder, creating prosperity and progress, advancing the human cause with genius and toil: an Ayn Rand hero come alive. His idea and his company, Cambrian Genomics, would change everything, of that he felt sure. As he’d tell investors and journalists again and again, the tools they were developing would one day be more powerful than the hydrogen bomb.

Imagine that it was possible to create the perfect human. The process would be like making an app, but instead of computer code, your design language would be DNA. You’d do the creating on your phone – using a piece of software called a Genome Compiler – then email what you’d come up with to Austen’s lab. They would manufacture the DNA, as per your instructions, then send it on to you. They’d dry it out and pop it in the post. After all, DNA isn’t alive. It’s a polymer, an arrangement of four different chemicals. From that DNA, it would be theoretically possible to construct the most advanced forms of life. You could make your human a super-genius or immune to all kinds of diseases. You could make them live for ever. After all, we only age and die because the DNA program we’re running – our human code – contains an instruction to do so. Just get rid of it. Rewrite it. Why not?

And why stop at humans? You could design and create any form of life you’d like. In the future we wouldn’t leave it to messy nature just to plop everything out, riven, as it always is, with all those hundreds of thousands of little genetic imperfections that add up to sadness, illness and death. Everything would be synthetic, designed for purpose, including our children, including us. The only things that would limit us would be our DNA programming abilities and our imaginations. Eventually, we wouldn’t even need to use Cambrian Genomics’ expensive equipment. We could construct a Chickenasaurus rex on our screen and, minutes later, see it scuttling from a printer. And there wasn’t even any particular reason why we’d be stuck remixing the things we already had. Everything alive is made up of just 20 different amino acids. Why not expand the range? Make some new ones? Incorporate metals into plants or animals? Imagine the possibilities. Imagine the problems we could solve.

“As a trial run for his technology, he decided to create a glowing shrub by copying some DNA code from a firefly”

If all of what Austen was planning was to happen, it wouldn’t only give us Jurassic Park, it’d give us Terminator too. But it wouldn’t necessarily follow that the Cambrian Genomics future would be a disaster movie. By curing all disease, living for ever and solving some of the planet’s most enduring technical problems without destroying it in the process, we could reduce the sum of human misery considerably. Perhaps it’s only the lunatic who talks earnestly of paradise. But how crazy would you have to be to think that this technology could move us an inch, even a mile, towards it?

It was at Duke University, while working on a synthetic biology research project, that Austen came up with a new and efficient way of producing usable DNA that reduced the cost from tens of thousands of dollars to just a few. “Everyone else that makes DNA, makes DNA incorrectly and then tries to fix it,” he said. “We don’t fix it. We just see what’s good, what’s bad and then we use the correct pieces.”

Later, when he was in his mid-twenties, at Seoul National University in South Korea, Austen developed his concept of a “printer for DNA” that would do the selecting, then decided progress would be more rapid in the private sector. At 27 he returned to the United States with some bridges burned and $300 to fund his vision. He was just another west-coast brain convinced he was going to change the world.

As a kind of trial run for his technology, he and some colleagues decided to create a glowing shrub by copying some DNA code from a firefly, “printing” it out, and inserting it into the cells of a plant. Their test worked. Their hybrid plant glowed in the dark. They decided to put it on sale. The $10,000 they spent on a promotional video was quickly recouped; they took in almost $60,000 on their first day of sales and $484,013 within six weeks, with orders eventually building towards $1 million. He founded Cambrian Genomics and raised $10 million from venture capitalists including PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel. His company began partnering with major international corporations, such as Roche and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as some smaller start-ups.

One of these was Sweet Peach, which had been founded by Audrey Hutchinson, a young biology student and Distinguished Scientist scholarship recipient at New York’s Bard College. After suffering a series of painful urinary tract infections, Hutchinson had become interested in vaginal health. Hearing about his work, she emailed Austen with her idea for a company that would use Cambrian Genomics tech to manufacture vaginal probiotics. Customers would send in a swab that would be genetically sequenced. Once the specific microbial species that made up their particular bacterial community was analysed, a personalised treatment would be delivered. Austen was immediately interested. He agreed to help not only with the technology but also with business advice. He took a ten per cent stake in her company.

Word of his work spread further. He met Sergey Brin from Google, Elon Musk from Tesla and SpaceX and Jared Leto from the movies. He was invited to Richard Branson’s private island, where apparently he silenced the billionaire’s dinner table with his visions of an intentionally designed, synthetic future. He was interviewed by Fortune and NPR and Wired. CNN named his technology as one of its “Top Ten Ideas that Could Save Lives’. He became a frequent guest at tech conferences, one of which was Demo: New Tech Solving Big Problems. His presentation, in San Jose on Wednesday 19th November 2014, was entitled ‘Create Your Own Creatures by Printing DNA’. “Our goal is to take everything that’s existing and natural and replace it with a synthetic version,” he said, with his familiar outfit of blue jeans, shirt open at the neck and fleece in place. “So by writing DNA we can make it better. We can make better humans, we can make better plants, we can make better animals, we can make better bacteria.” His glowing plant project might sound trivial, he acknowledged, but the implications were immense. “If you can engineer a plant to glow in the dark, imagine what else you can make a plant do. You could make a plant suck all the carbon out of the atmosphere. You could make a plant that produces food to feed the world.”

Austen Heinz on stage at the Demo: New Tech Solving Big Problems conference, 2014

The day before the conference, Austen had apparently been told he would be on for ten minutes rather than the three he’d been planning. To fill some of the time at the end, he decided to speak briefly about some of the companies he’d partnered with who’d be using Cambrian Genomics technology. Welcoming one of these partners onstage, Gilad Gome of Petomics, he talked about the idea of changing the smell of faeces and gastric wind and using it as an alert that a person was unwell.

“When your farts change from wintergreen to banana maybe that means you have an infection in your gut,” he said. He introduced Sweet Peach as a similar project. “The idea is to get rid of UTIs and yeast infections and change the smell of the vagina through probiotics,” he said. “So not only can you actually program them, you can write them, you can change them and you can make them personal to you. You can control all the code that lives on you, which is exciting, because previously the natural world has been beyond our grasp. We’ve recently, within the last ten years, been able to read it. Now we finally have the cost low enough that anyone can write it on their phones. So the idea is, your microbes can be out of balance. Sweet Peach will balance them, improve smell, and everybody’s happy.” Everybody’s scents are bacterial in origin, he explained. They’re produced by organisms that live on you. “We think it’s a fundamental human right to not only know your code and the code of the things that live on you but also to write your own code and personalise it.” When the compere provocatively asked if Austen and Gome were playing God, Austen countered in exquisitely neoliberal fashion, “The idea is personal empowerment. We don’t want the state telling people what they can grow on them, what babies they have and what genes they can fiddle with. We want it to be self-directed.”

“We think it’s a fundamental human right to not only know your [genetic] code but also to personalise it”

In the audience, a journalist from Inc.com thought what he was hearing was “astonishingly sexist”. Here was a man, he’d later write, chattering about “making women’s sex organs more aesthetically pleasing”. It seemed to him that Austen was just another of these “tech bros” who “talk endlessly about changing the world with technology while building frivolous things”. After the presentation, he asked some follow-up questions. Gome explained to the reporter that the change in scent wasn’t only there to help customers connect to themselves in a “better way”, it was an indicator that the product was actually working. “It tells us where the protein is expressed,” he said, adding jokingly, “What, would you rather have it glow?”

‘These Startup Dudes Want to Make Women’s Private Parts Smell Like Ripe Fruit’ ran the headline at Inc.com later that day. The story zipped around the web, being swapped and swapped and swapped again on social media, the outrage rapidly amplifying. Soon, the Huffington Post picked it up: ‘Two science startup dudes introduced a new product idea this week: a probiotic supplement that will make women’s vaginas smell like peaches.’ Gawker called it a “waste of science” and said Sweet Peach “sounds like a C-list rom-com with a similarly retrograde view on the priorities of the contemporary human female”. Then, Inc.com weighed in again: “Its mission, apparently hatched by a couple of 11-year-old boys still in the ‘ew, girl cooties’ stage, is to make sure women’s vaginas smell ‘pleasant’.” Similarly negative stories began appearing in major news sources such as Salon, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail and Business Insider.

These reports were profoundly unfair. Austen and Gome were presented as misogynists who’d decided to concentrate their efforts on solving the problem of disgusting vaginas. In truth, Austen had spent the majority of his talk explaining the fantastic world-changing possibilities of his technology. Its title referenced not vaginas but creating “your own creatures”. He’d talked about plants that could counter the effects of global warming, of one day being able to feed the world. Then, as a postscript, he’d mentioned other applications they were developing with third parties.

Austen had mentioned “vaginal smell” in a way that wasn’t entirely clear, but was in the context of a discussion of health products. And even then, to excoriate anyone for working on this specific area would seem eccentric at best; over-the-counter products for vaginal odour have been available in pharmacies for years, and nobody accuses their manufacturers of hating women. After the presentation, Gome
had actually clarified that part of the reason for the smell change was to show that the product
was working.

“It was pretty heart-wrenching to see him suffer like that in the media,” Austen’s sister, Adrienne, told me. We were talking in the central San Francisco consulting room where she works as a clinical psychologist, her client base largely Silicon Valley tech workers. “It was click-baity stuff. Article after article after article got written because the headline was interesting. It was so infuriating. I don’t think I realised how devastating it was for Austen until later. He couldn’t stop talking about it.”

Behind the scenes, Austen had been trying to convince Hutchinson to include a smell signal in her product, but she’d resisted. She’d had no idea he was planning on talking about Sweet Peach, even as a relatively brief aside following his main talk. That he didn’t think to mention her name only added to the problems. But, said Adrienne, his presentation contained no malice. She described him as “one of the biggest feminists I know. I mean, he grew up with two sisters who owned him.” In his attempts to repair the situation, he’d only succeeded in making things worse. “He was just saying all the wrong things,” said Adrienne. “I mean, you could never describe him as socially graceful.”

Because of what was going on in the media, investors began backing out of Cambrian Genomics. One of Austen’s business advisers compared his reputation, in the industry, to that of Bill Cosby. He’d been trying to raise a second round of funding and now he thought he’d have to start laying people off. The timing was terrible; they’d been encountering difficulties with their laser and needed all the brains they could get. “The technical problems could’ve been addressed,” said Adrienne. “He had this brilliant team of scientists that were helping and, worse-case scenario, they could’ve sold to another company who could’ve figured it out, or they could’ve persevered and eventually figured it out. That wasn’t the issue. It was more his confidence in his ability to raise money after this media fallout.”

By the end of 2014, Austen was suffering physically. “He was like a walking corpse. He’d stopped eating, stopped sleeping. He was just so ruminative – there was a constant stock-market ticker of how his life was over.” They’d have long conversations on the phone. “You might feel like you’d got somewhere by the end of the conversation but then a couple of days later he was back to the same headspace.” In March, Austen ordered a selection of ropes from the internet and tried to hang himself in his apartment. He failed. When he came to, he called Adrienne, who was driving home from work. “I just tried to kill myself,” he told her. The family took him on a break to wine country and staged an intervention, one evening, after dinner. “He just kept saying, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead’. We said, ‘We’re going to take you to the hospital. We’re going to get you the help you need’.” They had him committed in San Diego. He was later released.

On 27th May 2015 a member of the Cambrian Genomics team opened up the laboratory, after the long weekend, and discovered his body. Austen had hanged himself. He was 31.

 

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