How the World's Largest Biotech Accelerator Became a Classroom
IndieBio provided ten Khan Lab School students with a unique opportunity: to use a professional biotech lab to design solutions to the world’s biggest problems.
“I loved the whole program,” said Angelina, a student in Independence Level 5. “We got to be immersed in a new field and a new environment and learn about jobs we could have in the future.”
Based in downtown San Francisco, IndieBio is the largest biotech accelerator for startups. They provide initial funding and intense mentorship to companies working on products that aim to solve problems such as the global food crisis and snake bites. The startups they support through their venture capital fund are creating cutting-edge cancer treatments, revolutionizing the food supply chain, and finding new methods to diagnose diseases. Having helped launch Memphis Meats, Ava Labs, and many other companies, this was IndieBio's first time opening their labs to teenagers.
IndieBio’s mission is to mentor scientists as they become entrepreneurs, and they helped KLS students create marketable products to solve real-world problems. The Managing Director and Founder of IndieBio, Arvind Gupta, talked to students directly and helped put them in the mindset of entrepreneurs.
Over the course of two weeks, IndieBio educated the teens on the basics of biotech and gave them exposure to cutting-edge technology and bio-entrepreneurship. The students engaged in project-based learning as they explored DNA sequencing and protein purification, and the group projects required both collaboration and independence. Students also had to practice their communication skills by pitching their products to peers and professionals on a mock “Demo Day.”
IndieBio provided the students with a well-rounded educational atmosphere combining the knowledge, skills, and tools they needed to excel in their projects. Students were able to use brand new learning technologies developed in the lab, such as The DNA Playground and Virtual Bioengineer; the IndieBio company behind these tools, Amino Labs, is scaling access to biotechnology so that more young minds can experience real-world, hands-on scientific problem-solving. Khan Lab School students were also able to work with a PCR machine, various types of centrifuges, NanoDrops, and a CRISPR gene editing machine.
KLS STEM Specialist Megan Burns said, “This was an extremely unique opportunity to be exposed to a professional scientific community where people are actually creating businesses.”
Arjun, another student who attended the intensive IndieBio program, emphasized the value of the hands-on experience:
“Coming here and working in a real-world lab helped me understand what we covered in seminar.”
The students received specific guidance from Jun Axup, IndieBio's Science Director. Jun is passionate about using IndieBio’s tools to improve people’s health. “Doing lab work got me into biology,” she says. “Reading about it in a book didn’t do it, but having exposure to labs made me realize I wanted to be a biologist.”
With IndieBio’s tools and guidance, one group of students was able to pitch an idea for mosquito-repellent wipes to combat Zika, Dengue, and Malaria. The kids hypothesized that a wipe coated in bacteria with the enzyme IR3535 would repel mosquitoes, and they calculated that a family of four would only need one box to protect them from disease for a full year.
Another group’s mission was to create a solution for obesity. Their idea was to genetically engineer the enzyme HPL into a bacteria which eats fat from the gut, and then market it as a pill that people would be able to take daily. They hypothesized that their customer base would include 69% of the people in the U.S. who struggle with their weight.
The third group proposed that they would use bacteria to help cure colorectal cancer. Their idea was to put an anti-cancer drug inside bacteria and include an antibody to allow the bacteria to attach to the cancer cell. The cancer cell would take in the bacteria, and the toxins inside would kill the cancer cell.
Each group “earned” over $1 million for their projects by the end of Demo Day, with the third group earning $2.9 million for their proposed cure for colorectal cancer.
Students were especially appreciative of IndieBio’s willingness to collaborate with them as scientists. “I liked the lab environment,” said Isra, age 14. “I liked how they treated us like adults.”
The IndieBio team, for their part, seemed excited to host the students. “I’m amazed at how early these kids are learning about new technologies like CRISPR,” said one intern. “Even to be learning about DNA at such a young age is incredible.”
IndieBio is looking forward to establishing a long-term partnership with Khan Lab School and scaling up the ability to teach cutting-edge biotechnology at high schools nationwide.