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Indie Science Case Study: Cathal Garvey

It is my goal with these Indie Science Case Studies to show that becoming an independent researcher or science entrepeneur is not some insane, impossible undertaking. Taking the traditional route to research, you have a lot of role models to follow and the hurdles one will face, while still difficult, are clearly mapped. The path to becoming an independent is not so clearly laid out. Hopefully by hearing from those who’ve already made the leap as independents will help others follow their lead.

Our first interview is with Cathal Garvey, founder of IndieBiotech and biohacker extraordinaire.

Tell us a little about what you are currently working on.

Cathal:I’ll have to be circumspect. I’m not patenting things, so I have to be a little secretive, at least until its finished. My main project is an open source vector that was built from scratch using only b. subtilis dna that doesn’t require antibiotic selection. Though it’s on hold at the moment until I can re-order some more [DNA] synthesis. As soon as that arrives, we will be resuming testing, which was going well, to verify that it works as designed.  I’m also developing a patent free means to purify arbitrary proteins. It’ll be a drop in replacement for affinity methods commonly used like nickel affinity chromatography. Because of the patents, the price of reagents for using these methods is prohibitive.  I’m hoping to develop a lab in a suitcase, that will contain biobricks, some enzymes like polymerase and ligase. And from that suitcase, you’re able to build any biologic you want.

What got you so interested in science? Biology?

Cathal: Childhood outdoors I suppose. I’ve always known I wanted to be a scientist, specifically genetics. When I was 11, I saw a documentary on genetic engineering and that was it.

What is your educational background?

Cathal: Aside from primary and secondary, and some summer schools. I got a bachelors from the University of Cork in genetics. I post grad in cancer, integrative targeting gene therapy. Found that I was disillusioned with the way research gets done. Academia is excellent at finding answers but not very good at finding solutions. So I left to take on biohacking as a career.

What inspired you to take a non-traditional route?

Cathal: I’ve been exposed to enough anecdotal examples of science being left by the wayside. I’ve seen for my self a lot of really good projects not get a chance over political or bureacratic stuff. One example is antibiotics in Africa, it’s really expensive, not for any scientific reason.  It’s cause we approach the problem as “How do we white saviors get our medicine to those poor Africans.” This makes no sense.  Science should have delivered antibiotic yoghurt ages ago. The science is there, I could do it tomorrow if you give me a lump of cash. Also the funding cycle means research has to be compartmentalized into blocks. This requires researchers to publish 10 bad papers filling the gaps with fluff instead of one good one. The whole culture and the inability to divorce science from publication. At the time of this disillusionment I encountered diybio and bioart; you had grassroots science on one side and rebellion on the other. Science is getting cheaper.  But a lot of the methods that we use to make things aren’t quite there yet. I’d like to pave that way. And if I cant make it as an Indie my self, I’d like to at least leave a brick road for others.  I am not a libertarian. But dealing with the bureaucracy in academia can be crushing to freedom. Science should be, I have a good idea, I have a good question. what does it take to get an answer. That is what motivated me.

How do you get funding for your work?

Cathal: Originally I didn’t. I was operating out of savings and from an allowance my wife gave me. She gave me a year to see if I could do it. I had [my lab] mostly kitted up. I had done the math, [DNA] synthesis costs X and if you can sell 2X then this some. Just basic math, this looks like something you could do if you’re thinking like an engineer. Pure science requires you to find a way to monetize or patronage. I’m not going down that route. This past year had a lot of distractions, dealing with regulators took half a year, I thought it’d be a month. My daughter was born. And I still hadn’t required outside funding. Project was showing some progress. I gave a talk at coder dojo and afterwards an investor contacted me. There was a lot of back and forth before accepting since this has to be open source ultimately even if it failed. So now I’m paying myself a salary. The investment route is certainly more comfortable. If someone didn’t have a complicated family or license [i.e. Irelands GMO laws]. It’s still possible to put together something from pocket money. Then sell at a fair price $50, when your costs were $1000 gene synthesis. That’s not bad. Especially for a project of this complexity. The cost of making the cell is minimal you get to keep that all as profit.

Any advice you’d like to share?

Cathal: I would say, I’ve seen some great ideas ruined by patents. From the sellers perspective. They patent then try to sell it at a reasonable rate to a company or investor. So now your costs are no longer that $1000 price of synthesis, you have the cost of the patent itself plus the cost of the lawyer. But predominately it’s the psychology. Once you get the patent, now you have to convince partner that your patent is sufficiently better to warrant their time and money. You may not get the same investors but consider a more modern way of business. Creating 1patent is not enough anymore. Keep inventing. If you can invent one thing you can invent a million.