John Cumbers of SynBioBeta Profiled in San Francisco Business Times
May 22, 2020
John Cumbers told his graduate school supervisor that he didn’t think he was going to win a Nobel Prize. He did, however, think he might one day connect two people who would go on to win the Nobel Prize together.
“I felt quite proud of that, that I would have been the catalyst that created that Nobel Prize,” Cumbers said. “But my supervisor kind of looked down his nose at me and said, ‘Well, I think a lot better of you John.’”
His supervisor might feel differently now about the power of connecting people, seeing the impact Cumbers went on to have in the synthetic biology movement. Cumbers founded the innovation network SynBioBeta in 2012, and Bay Area biotech leaders say the group is a key player in advancing the field.
Cumbers describes synthetic biology as “a movement to make biology easier to engineer,” specifying it is not necessarily so much about what someone is making, but the way they are making it. He was drawn to the topic through his education in software engineering, bioinformatics, molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry. Synthetic biology appealed to him as a way of applying engineering to biology.
He came to Silicon Valley in 2008 for a job at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, where he spent seven years working on synthetic biology for the space agency. During that time, the region’s startup vibe rubbed off on him, he said.
“I could talk the talk of the investors and I could talk the talk of the startups,” he said, and it felt natural to him to apply that savvy to his passion for synthetic biology and connecting people.
He put on the first SynBioBeta conference in November 2012 in a room at the Orrick law firm office in Menlo Park. Around 150 people showed up to the standing-room only event, and the guest list reads like a who’s who of the synthetic biology field. Attendees included the future founders of Twist Bioscience and Zymergen, along with the heads of Bolt Threads and Ginkgo Bioworks.
There was a buzz and energy in the room, recalled Emily Leproust, CEO and co-founder of South San Francisco-based Twist Bioscience. While there were scientific conferences at the time for people interested in synthetic biology, there were no business conferences for the field until Cumbers launched SynBioBeta.
“John really had the insight that that conference, that melting pot of businesses and investors and entrepreneurs, was missing,” Leproust said. Twist was in the first wave of synthetic biology companies to go public in late 2018, raising some $70 million, and now has more than 300 employees.
SynBioBeta has been “extremely helpful” in raising the visibility of Twist, and it has been instrumental in the success of Twist’s marketing, sales and fundraising, Leproust said.
The SynBioBeta group and its conferences highlight Cumbers’ values of enabling others without getting in the way, said Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University.
“SynBioBeta is responsive to the needs of industry, but I think deserves a lot of credit for pioneering the idea that there is a commercial frame of reference and movement around synthetic biology,” Endy said.
Endy sees the biotech currently on the market as “the snowflake on the tip of the iceberg,” he said, and SynBioBeta plays a central role in encouraging the exploration of what else is possible. He traces that spirit back to Cumbers.
“He’s got this rare combination of extreme empathy and active listening skills combined with a vision for awesome, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if things were like this?’ And he operates at the intersection of both empathy and vision with almost no ego,” Endy said.
Some 1,300 people attended the last SynBioBeta event, which featured speeches from Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. SynBioBeta’s online events draw in more than 500 viewers each week, and more than 10,000 people subscribe to the group’s newsletter.
Even with this wide reach, Cumbers, for his part, simply describes himself as a natural professional networker who is content with being behind the scenes.
“I’m very happy to let the people who are actually doing the work shine, and that’s kind of what I do in my newsletter and in the conference,” Cumbers said. “I don’t need to be the one out front.”
About John Cumbers
Education: Ph.D. in molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry from Brown University; a master of science degree in bioinformatics from Edinburgh University; undergraduate degree from the University of Hull in computer science with information engineering.
The resume: Cumbers spent seven years working on synthetic biology at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View. He has been involved in multiple startups focused on problems like producing food for space, developing microbes to extract lunar and Martian resources and even hoverboards.
Current role: Founder of innovation network SynBioBeta.
Main focus: Education on the use and adoption of biological technologies.