Bill Liao - Open Source Synthetic Biology

Written by: Philip Smyth
Written on: Thursday, 13 February, 2014

Bill Liao on his recent visit to SBI drew comparisons between the early years of computers and the current convergence of biology and technology. Bill was clearly excited by the possibilities offered by synthetic biology to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. He pointed out that in the early days of personal computers the early adopters were the hobbyists, this group of people took computer technology out the hands of academia and corporations and started applying the technology to real world problems. In many ways, Bills view is supported by history, for instance in the early 1940s, IBM's president, Thomas J Watson, reputedly said: "I think there is a world market for about five computers.” The tipping point for computer technology happened when “hobbyists” like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak took this technology and turned it into something that solved a problem for ordinary people. Bill was quick to point out the parallels between the hobbyists of the early years of computers and the growing community of biohacker activists.

We have heard consistently throughout the Art Of The Start that a key skill of an entrepreneur is in identifying a customer’s problem. Bill reiterated this and maintained that small focused start-ups with a small amount of finance are the most efficient engines of innovation. SOS ventures, the firm that Bill is a partner of, has an impressive track record in supporting early stage business development by running strategically focused accelerators. He used the example of China Axlr8r based in Shanghai, which provides mentoring and financial support to teams looking to develop innovative hardware. Why Shanghai? Simply put, Ecosystem. The proximity to a large cluster of hardware manufacturing facilities was a key reason.

The ecosystem of Cork, Bills adopted home, is slightly different. Pharmaceutical and Biotech manufacturing are a major source of employment in Cork and the surrounding counties. This makes it a perfect location for biology/life science focused ventures. Proximity to customers with problems, access to necessary hardware and a little bit because Bill lives in Cork are the reasons why SOS Ventures latest programme SynBio Axlr8r is running in UCC for three months this coming summer. The programme is currently accepting applications and will provide access to hardware, business mentors and seed capital of up to $30k.