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🧬 🤖 Automated Synthetic Biology (I'm sure it's fine)

Published on
October 17, 2022
Show notes

We need to talk about robots.

But first: There’s a very particular bottleneck where groundbreaking science is more applicable than ever but inaccessible to many. 

The tools are unaffordable to the schools and groups who could use them to hook kids right when they’re most excited, kids with a huge variety of lived experienced, who have grown up in the climate era, and in the COVID era, who see and want to solve problems they can touch and feel – but because of costs and access, they never get to try.

Or the bottleneck presents as being frustratingly inefficient, to the labs who actually do this stuff every day, the ones who see a peer’s research and try to replicate it, but don’t have the funding or people or bandwidth or all three to spend time filling test tubes.

Building better processes isn’t the sexiest science you can do, but the science doesn’t happen, or nearly enough of it, or fast enough, without the help of someone who’s been affected by these inefficiencies.

Someone who can see the whole journey and identify areas where existing ways of doing things and tools for doing things can be made more reliable, more useful, and more affordable, to more people.

Enter: automated synthetic biology. ROBOTS.

Roya Amini-Naieni is my guest today, straight from her robot lab.

This is another in our series of conversations with 776 fellows, a two-year program for young people who want to build a better future.

Roya is not only a 776 fellow but also the co-founder and CEO of TriloBio, where she’s working on revolutionizing synthetic biology by changing the way synthetic biologists do science.

Roya’s had an incredible journey so far, the child of Iranian immigrants, the child of engineers, and the apprentice to so many mentors who have seen her ambition and seem to understand that Roya has identified a way to stand up for better access to the tools of the future, and along the way, maybe even put a dent in the universe.

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Transcript

Quinn:

It's easy to describe these revolutions in science, like using CRISPR to eradicate genetic diseases as simply, I don't know, using scissors to cut out a few genes here and there and Bob's your uncle. Well, for one, I'm fairly sure that's not exactly how it works. Two, where do you get the scissors and how much do they cost and who makes them?

Quinn:

For the past couple decades, you might have noticed the United States, having blown an early lead after the industrial revolution, has been scrambling to catch up to the rest of the world's scientific progress, or at least to keep pace, from cradle to the grave. This is an oversimplification, of course. America has exported Silicon Valley to the rest of the world, and we led the way on developing COVID vaccines.

Quinn:

But Chinese children test higher, other countries' elderly live longer and healthier, and we have a whole host of problems to deal with. Our best scientists spend huge chunks of their time writing grant proposals or doing manual labor in labs staffed by undergrads who will one day do both of the same. It's a complex topic, of course, and analyzing those topics and what the hell we can do about them is what we do here.

Quinn:

Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit. In our weekly conversations, I take a deep dive with an incredible human who's working on the frontlines of the future to build a radically better today and tomorrow for everyone.

Quinn:

Along the way, we'll discover tips, strategies, and stories you can use to get involved and become more effective for yourself, for your family, your city, your company, and our world.

Quinn:

This is another in our series of conversations with 776 fellows, a two-year program for young people who want to build a better future. It makes sense.

Quinn:

Now, look, there's a very particular bottleneck where groundbreaking science is more applicable than ever, but inaccessible to many. The tools are unaffordable to the schools and groups who could use them the most to hook kids right when they're most excited, kids with a huge variety of lived experiences, who have grown up in the climate era, in the COVID era, who see and want to solve problems they can touch and feel. But because of the costs and access, they never really get to try.

Quinn:

With the bottleneck presents as being frustratingly inefficient to the labs who actually do this stuff every day, the one who sees a peers research and tries to replicate it, doesn't have the funding or the people or the bandwidth, or all three, spend time filling test tubes all day. Building better processes isn't the sexiest science you could do, but the sexy science doesn't happen, or nearly enough of it, or fast enough, with the help, the help, of someone who's been affected by these inefficiencies, someone who can see the whole journey and identify areas or existing ways of doing things and the tools for doing things can be made more reliable, more useful, more affordable to more people.

Quinn:

Roya Amini-Naieni is one of those people, and she's my guest today. Straight from her lab. Roya is not only a 776 fellow, but also co-founder and CEO of Trilo Bio, where she's working on revolutionizing synthetic biology by changing the way synthetic biologists do science.

Quinn:

Clearly, we have a lot in common. Roya's had an incredible journey so far. She's the child of Iranian immigrants, the child of engineers, the apprentice to so many mentors who have seen her ambition and seem to understand that Roya has identified a way to stand up for better access to the tools of the future, and along the way, maybe even put a dent in the universe. Welcome to the show.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Hi. Thanks for having me.

Quinn:

You are very welcome. Thank you in advance for putting up with me. It's very kind of you. Roya, we like to start with one important question to really set the tone for this thing, and to encourage you to be bold and honest throughout our conversation. So I'd like to say instead of telling us your entire life story, Roya, why are you vital to the survival of the species?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Wow. That is a big question. Well, I think that the entire field of synthetic biology could drastically, positively influence the species and extend lifespan, help reduce plastic waste and save our oceans, and also develop medicines and gene therapies to help mitigate disease.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

My goal in this life is to make this technology easier to access for biologists and for everyday people, so that we can accelerate the progress in this field and make these technologies more accessible and more feasible.

Quinn:

That's amazing. That's fantastic. I have a podcast. You're coming to us from your lab. This is very exciting. Tell me for a minute about your lab. What am I looking at here? I've got a couple shelves. What's on those shelves?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah, so our lab is under construction. It's a genetic engineering lab. We have an incubator back there for growing organisms, a couple Opentrons robots. These are some existing automation devices in the field. They pipette automatically for biologists. A bunch of pipette tips. Pipettes are these tools used for manipulating small volumes of liquids. In order to maintain sterile technique and make sure your samples don't contaminate each other, you just have a bunch of plastic tips. I actually have some right here.

Quinn:

Okay. All right. I've seen those before in various horror movies. This is exciting. So is that stuff that's still to be organized being used every day? What else am I missing from the picture here? You don't have to swing us around or anything.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

No worries. So this is my office. This is the top floor. So we have a genetic engineering lab here. We have office space outside of this lab. Then on the ground floor, we have our robotics laboratory, where we're building robots to do the stuff happening here automatically for people and for cheaper.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So what's cool is that this lab has a bunch of expensive machines. They're not automated. A human has to go in and use them manually. It has to pipette for 10 hours a day on their legs. What we are trying to do is make it so that most biologists never have to manually pipette again or to do all of this manual work.

Quinn:

That's exciting. Do biologists like to pipette, or are you trying to solve some serious issues here?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah. Biologists, they like to pipette a little, but not for 10 hours a day over the weekends for the rest of their lives. It's very taxing and there's a lot of human error in the experiments. It's also very repetitive. You're doing the same thing over and over again. I think the really disheartening part of it all is that a lot of the times these experiments fail. And so, you spent 10 hours of your life one day and you have to come in over the weekend because your experiment failed to do the same thing over again.

Quinn:

I mean science is hard. Science is a process. We can get into all that, but that does sound like a robot would be lovely and helpful. Now how could a biologist better use their time while Frank the robot is pipetting for me?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah. They could spend their time designing experiments, reading research papers about groundbreaking technologies and thinking about how to apply them, debugging experiments instead of having to do them manually. Right now a lot of the people doing the manual work are undergraduates at universities, or laboratory technicians, or research associates, and the professors get to do a lot of this fun work where they're reading research papers and designing experiments, going into the field, collaborating on research with other people who are impactful in the field. Our goal, or at least our dream, is that these laboratory technicians and these undergraduates get to play the professor's role eventually.

Quinn:

I like that. Now are there snacks anywhere that I'm seeing, or with less pipetting, can there be more snack time? I have found that it makes me both more and less productive.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes, there can be more snack time right now. So my background is in genetic engineering. The lab work behind the lab bench over here, normally I have to miss lunch or dinner in order to do lab work, which is just sad. It's not easy to do lab work with a hungry stomach. So our dream is that a biologist, similar to a computer scientist, will be able to sit behind a computer and program their fully automated labs and drink all the boba that they want and eat all the snacks that they want without worrying about contaminating their samples.

Quinn:

Can I ask you a question? What are those things at the bottom of bobas? Because for the longest time, and my children corrected me, apparently they're not blueberries. What are those?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I was always under the impression that that was the boba, like the boba pearls.

Quinn:

Okay. Wait, is it not?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah, it is. Yeah, yeah, the boba pearls, from my understanding. Then the tea is the liquid, instead of the drink.

Quinn:

Okay. All right. It comes in all the different flavors. I'm on a college campus here and the boba place is so popular. I'm always like, I don't know, I drink the coffee. I'm very boring.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes, they're boba pearls. They taste like honey a little bit.

Quinn:

That's nice. All right. So we get a boba going on. We don't have time for lunch. I get it. Right now my goal every day is eat lunch before 3:00, which is just ... It's got to get better than that.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Oh my gosh. 3:00 PM. Wow.

Quinn:

I know. What's annoying is there's a popup every day at 11:30 that says order lunch. So somewhere in that three and a half-hour window, I try to get it done.

Quinn:

So, Roya, senior year of high school. Your goal throughout this, please just correct me everywhere I'm wrong, which is all everybody does all day, senior year of high school, you started, from what I understand, Washington State's first high school genetically engineered machines team. Is that correct?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes, it is.

Quinn:

We talked about this a little bit offline. I want to set expectations here for you and everyone else. So in high school, I was in marching band. So they're not dissimilar, but just saying we're starting from different places here. We're obviously of different generations.

Quinn:

I was a jock/nerd. I read Wired and Popular Science and National Geographic and sci-fi and fantasy and all this. But I guess it never really would have occurred to me either from my inputs, whether it was school ... Which I loved my schools. I was very lucky to go to good public schools, surrounded by great teachers and a wide variety of interesting people and social demographics and all that. I had great parents and reading and all this stuff. Read all the Michael Crichton stuff about weird bioengineering shit, Andromeda Strain, all that.

Quinn:

But for whatever reason, it never would've occurred to me to set my sights on something so specifically technical. I wonder if during your childhood and adolescence up till now, if ... And, again, tell me if I'm completely wrong here, but the prevalence and popularity of platforms like Khan Academy and YouTube and things like that, does that help kids find a much, I guess, wider variety of nuanced, nerdy shit they can get into? I'm curious if that plays any role, or just the internet in general.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah, you actually brought up Popular Science. That's how I got into synthetic biology, actually.

Quinn:

Tell me.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So there's this genetic engineer and they developed this genetic engineering kit. They called it the CRISPR kit. So this was around when CRISPR technology, the application of it, for gene editing was being discovered by Jennifer Doudna at Berkeley. There was a ton of popular reading on it. There was a ton of articles released, and one of them was in Popular Science. I read that. But also there was this genetic engineer that developed an at-home kit for genetically engineered yeast using CRISPR technology and he launched a kickstarter. And so, I read about his kit on Popular Science and bought one through his kickstarter, and that's how I started doing genetic engineering research. I also read his blog.

Quinn:

But that's so cool. That's what I mean. I was in a CD of the Month Club and you were able to buy a kickstarter for a CRISPR yeast genetic engineering kit. I mean they're both cool, but yours is just ... I mean, again, it's so much more like, oh, this is a really specific thing I'm really into. So for you, when you read that article and you kickstarted this kit, which is so cool, was it a specific application you were interested in or was it more just like, "Oh, this is something I really just want to get my hands on and mess around with?"

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah. So before reading this article, I just saw ... So I grew up in Seattle, Washington. There's a lot of biotech going on there, especially at University of Washington. I was going to the doctor's office and I saw this sign about this scientist using stem cells to help cure blindness.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

That was my first little bit of genetic engineering in my life, seeing that. Blindness seemed like this insurmountable, ginormous problem that no one was ever going to solve. But then this scientist was able to tackle this problem using this previously impossible tool called genetic engineering. That just blew my mind.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So then I just started collecting Popular Science magazines and reading them a bunch. Through that collection and through diving into the field, I learned about the CRISPR kits. Excitingly, one of my heroes from a while ago is actually working at my company right now. She helped put together these kits for people.

Quinn:

So I mean, come on. How cool is that? Let's go all the way back. How long between walking into the doctor's office and seeing the sign about using genetic engineering to help blindness and today?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Oh, man. I was around 12 or 13 then, so about 10 years.

Quinn:

Okay. Is that pretty exciting?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah, it's very exciting. Actually being able to push forward a field that I got into years ago is pretty exciting.

Quinn:

It's interesting because ... And we don't have to get into all of the particulars of this. But my brother, at one point, when he graduated school, so let's say we go back 10 years, about 10 years before that, he had been doing some organizing around stem cell conferences and researches and things like that.

Quinn:

But I remember him being very ... And the whole sort nascent field and industry being very rejected, disillusioned, however you want to put it when the second George Bush was in office and they put a kabbash on embryonic stem cells. They were just like, well, yes, we get it. Controversial, needs to be done correctly, however we all decide to define that.

Quinn:

But just putting it back in the can sets back our ability to understand whether we can even begin to develop and engineer things to help this huge variety of genetic maladies, much less start to actually address them in any practical way, or run trials. We can't even do the research to get there, and how bummed they were because they were like, "We're on the cusp of this."

Quinn:

Now you've been able to take this past 10 years, like you said, and start to affect this field. Do you feel like it's already come a long way?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

The field itself?

Quinn:

Sure.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I think it definitely has. I think it was founded not that long ago actually. The specific field I'm working in is called synthetic biology, and that field was founded pretty recently actually. One of the founders of the field was actually my co-founder's professor when he was working in his lab a while ago. So they're still alive, but ...

Quinn:

Great. I mean have you checked today? Are you sure?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes.

Quinn:

Okay.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

It's only been just a few years and the field is already widespread and has already gotten a lot of attention. There are already companies trying to apply it in industry. Before, it was just in academia. You would get professors publishing research papers about it. It's super niche. But now you have companies out there actually trying to apply the technology and spread the technology to hundreds and thousands of people.

Quinn:

So it seems like to me ... And, again, please just shoot me down left and right here if I'm misunderstanding this. But it seems like ... I like to work backwards from specific outcomes, and then we can measure all of our processes and our teams and things like that, our milestones along the way against those.

Quinn:

It seems like your outcome, I mean if a little more ... Not vague, but not a specific thing, is make doing the research more efficient, more practical, better use of everyone's times, free up the resources to do the thinking to work together on things like this, instead of spending our time on a lot of manual labor. Does that seem right?

Quinn:

It's almost like you're not doing a specific experiment. You're not like, "I'm going to solve X." You're trying to build out this process almost like in the middle man perspective. Is that right?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Exactly. We're creating tools. I guess a way to put the problem that we're solving, right now scientists do most of their work manually, and there's this huge problem in the field where one scientist will develop this groundbreaking experiment and another scientist could really benefit from that experiment. So they read the other scientist's research paper, and most of the time that second scientist won't be able to replicate that experiment. So while the field has come pretty far, most scientists have a problem replicating each other's work and building off of each other's work.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So our goal as a company is to build accessible, fully automated genetic engineering labs so that these scientists can share their experiments as code that runs the same way on every lab. And so, our goal with that is to essentially mitigate the reproducibility problem in the field.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes, there are many different experiments that we're hoping to be automated on these labs. It's a generic tool more than a specific thing.

Quinn:

That's exciting. I mean that's so important. That's, I think, the thing that people don't realize. Science is a very broad term, a very broad field, and it has incredible opportunities and huge issues from green cards and immigration all the way to how do we fund in scales actual reproducible technologies or innovations, whatever it might be.

Quinn:

But it's interesting because it's such a unique time. Like you said, the field's very new. But I mean if there's anything we've learned over the past couple of years, it's science is a process. More than ever, especially with things like social media, again, enormous pros and cons, we've all ... We always joke about everybody on Twitter's an amateur epidemiologists, and then all of a sudden everyone ... Russia invades and they're amateur war historians. It's like, come on, guys.

Quinn:

But the point is we've come to understand ... If you're not in it every day, we've come to understand how messy science and the process from soup to nuts can be and often should be. The whole point is you're trying to disprove yourself. That's what's so great about it. But even before COVID, the success of replication is an issue, and it's across the field.

Quinn:

So I've got a bunch of psychologists in my family. I mean that field gets hammered once a month with people being like, "This study everybody's been talking about for 25 years, nobody can replicate it." A huge variety of issues. You see either because they were biased from the beginning in the way they were built, or people didn't realize it, or we do a meta analysis and realize this was tainted or this was not. I mean the Alzheimer's thing from last month was totally wild. Just 30 years of research down the pipe.

Quinn:

But it also can help you go, "Oh, this is why we're so stuck," because the fundamentals we're built on were just totally incorrect, or they were manipulated in some way. Tell me about specifically how you thought, "I want to build Trilo Bio to improve this process." Why is that such a wrench in your gear? Why did this bother you so much that you had to start a company to try to fix it?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes. So around seven years ago, I started the first high school IGEM team, or International Genetically Engineered Machines team.

Quinn:

As we discussed, I was playing the snare drum. You were doing ... Yes. Continue.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes. And so, that competition in particular is a very popular competition. It's how a lot of the people who founded genetic engineering companies today got into the field, actually. The Ginkgo Bioworks founders all came from that competition.

Quinn:

Okay. Cool.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

For example, a lot of professors today came from that competition. Going through this competition, you have to teach people how to do synthetic biology and how to do this genetic engineering work. So I explored a lot of different tools for learning synthetic biology. I had to set up my own lab for them to work out of. I learned about how expensive lab equipment is, how there are so few materials for learning genetic engineering, how often these competition teams fail.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Most IGEM competition projects fail because of this problem, where it takes too long or too many years to learn how to do the experiments or to learn how to do the genetic engineering. They have these huge, largely impactful ideas to solve climate change, to help mitigate a certain disease, and they end up never really realizing their vision and end up abandoning their projects. This is because either it takes too long to learn, they can't afford the lab equipment.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

There's this one story, and this is sad. There's this device in a genetic engineering lab called a shaking incubator. So it grows. It incubates cells, so it heats cells and shakes them. The shaking incubator is so expensive that one IGEM team with a bunch of high schoolers had a student hold the tubes and shake them overnight, hand the tubes to another student to shake them for 18 hours-

Quinn:

Oh my God.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

... because they couldn't afford a machine that does that.

Quinn:

So if I can pause, just, again, I want to give people context. I mean it's a student team. They're on limited resources. But what is they can't afford? Is it two grand, five grand, 50 grand? What are we talking?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Five grand, six grand.

Quinn:

Okay. That's still steep.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Oh, yeah, for a high school team.

Quinn:

Yeah, 100%.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

No one's really funding them. They're getting money by raising it themselves. That is just one machine. Usually a lab can cost like $50,000 to build. That's start asking these children to start their own companies, technically.

Quinn:

Right, children.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I saw all of these experiments fail, and these people with passion in their eyes and excitement fail at achieving their goals and grow bitter. And so, I made it my mission for a long time to build accessible lab equipment. I've done some projects in trying to build accessible freezer storage and to help build learning tools for getting into the field.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I ran a lab where I taught people how to do genetic engineering at the college I attended. I really think that the real solution here is if we build fully automated labs that are cheap, then these people can do science with the click of a button and never have to go into this training and never have to pay $50,000.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

The first robot that we built, that we're working on right now, specifically a component of it is the robot arm inside of it. Normally, these arms cost like $30,000. Our arm cost us $600 to build. So we're trying to make everything cheaper and more accessible.

Quinn:

How do you bring that down by such ... I'm not even going to do the math on the factor there. How do you do that? I mean without giving away trade secrets here.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

For context, the four-axis robot arms that people sell, they sell them for $30,000. Ours cost us $600 to build. So I don't know how much it costs them specifically, but-

Quinn:

They're making some money.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

A lot of people who build automation for biologists aren't biologists. They're roboticists who built a robot arm that's very strong and very nice, and they look for applications for that arm. So they looked for the application of biology. But the arm is built for solving problems in the field of derrick field.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Biology, you're manipulating small volumes of liquid and lifting plastic things that are barely any weight. So if you're building a robot arm specifically for biological applications, you can cut features that are normally present in generic robot arms that don't need to be there for biology.

Quinn:

That's fascinating. It makes so much sense. I mean it takes a special kind of curiosity to go through these early processes you went through and go ... I'm into logistics. This is clearly the bottleneck, and it is a bottleneck. It's been documented, I mean, over and over and over. But it's fascinating because ...

Quinn:

Again, this is a gross oversimplification, but you hear all the time since CRISPR came about, everyone's like, "What is it?" I'm like, "It's scissors. It's great Cut it out and you put the new stuff back in," or whatever it might be. But it's obviously much more complicated and difficult than that.

Quinn:

But your perspective on it was, yes, if you can afford the equipment and how do we scale that up essentially. It should be and it can be highly specialized, and in some cases, in some fields, highly specialized means much more equipment because someone has a monopoly over some niche. You're saying it doesn't have to be. I can make this thing for $600, sell it for whatever you need to sell it for.

Quinn:

Obviously you've got to market it and you've got to do this. But in time with scale, one would think, even if you're selling it for twice the cost or three times the cost, that's still half the cost for some student, and that becomes much more palatable to schools that have just completely mangled budgets.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Exactly. I would've loved to have one of these in my high school.

Quinn:

Right. I mean you hear these early stories, and obviously it's much different now. My kids come home from their public school with Chromebooks that some other kids used the year before for three years or whatever it may. But that compared to an early Bill Gates or whatever it is in Seattle, his high school is lucky enough to have some mainframe that he fought for time on and he was the only nerd, a, that was into it and, b, knew how to use it, and his school happened to have one. Great. Trillionaire. Fantastic.

Quinn:

That's not the goal, but the point is access, because if we can kickstart these kits, we have to enable ... I mean we see this in America so often, kids who grew up and they're talented with a soccer ball, and then you find out, yeah, but it's pretty only much white kid families who can pay $5,000 a year for them to actually play on one of these travel teams. That's a bottleneck and that's solvable and it shouldn't be that way.

Quinn:

If we can kickstart these kits and you can distribute them to classrooms, what about all those kids who are going, "Well, now I want to do this," or, "I want to take it a little bit further. I want to work on this experiment," or grandma's blind, or someone has sickle cell, or whatever it might be. We have to enable that. Immigration's more complicated than this and that. That seems like something we should solve, right?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Exactly. People don't really talk about the benefits of accessibility enough. I think, personally, it's huge. I grew up as a child because I didn't have access to a ton of things in the field. All of the research papers were behind a paywall. There's been this huge fight to make them publicly accessible.

Quinn:

Big news just this summer, right?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Definitely, yes. But I was the person using Sci-Hub, which is this tool where people can put a research paper in and it pops it out without the paywall. I grew up using the CRISPR kits, trying to do everything in my power to get access to this technology. I could have saved so much time for people who aren't willing to use the Sci-Hubs and torrent the research papers. It's really important. I agree.

Quinn:

So who knows what comes of it, because, again, it's just an executive order and it's complicated. But I think it was this month, President Biden signed this executive order to launch ... I think they called it a National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Institute or initiative or whatever it might be. The way I absorbed it was through the news and reputable journalists that I follow. They really covered it on this two senses.

Quinn:

One, we've imported a ton of the foreign materials necessary to do these processes. Two, then we outsource the bioproduction of a lot of these things. Again, as we've hinted at a little bit, that harms science innovation, and to get more specific, American innovation, in a number of ways. It's all innovation like we were just talking about, whether it's kids or professionals, just getting research out to labs is impossible. And you're writing grants all the time.

Quinn:

It's a jobs issue because we don't have anybody who can do this stuff. It's an immigration issue. It's a preparedness issue. I mean there's going to be some other pandemic of some sort. We've got this antibiotic nightmare on our doorstep. It's a climate issue, like you've talked about, recycling, things like that. It's national security.

Quinn:

The goal with all this seems to be we were going to expand manufacturing. We want to actually build more markets for these sort of products, of course, and drive more R&D through all that.

Quinn:

So when you are late 2022 somehow, you're looking at Trilo Bio and going, "Here's where we want to be in a year. Here's where we want to be in five years." Where do you see yourself falling in that scope of things?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah. Our robots will really accelerate the pace of biomanufacturing. The fact that there are deployable people in terms of timeline. By the end of this year, we're rolling out our first robot to pilot users. We already have a few. This robot does a lot of the work that a biologist does at their lab bench. It pipettes. It moves tubes around and opens and closes them.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

In about five years, I'm hoping that we will release the other robots that we're building, so like a freezer for automated cold storage, an incubator. Many labs will have access to these machines and they'll be working inside of their labs and enabling a lot of this biomanufacturing and a lot of this climate change research, because there are a lot of synthetic biology companies out there tackling these problems, and we want to accelerate their research and make it more accessible. So if a company automates an experiment on a robot, we're hoping that another company can just take that code and run it on their own.

Quinn:

That's pretty rad. Are you more specifically focused on the industrial side or are there more clinical type settings where this is applicable? I mean obviously, again, we want to get it to small labs in schools and all that kinds of different things. But do you have a particular focus, or is it our goal is to just make these things more widely accessible? Where do you see the biggest opportunity there?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Right now we're targeting research and development departments. So these can be inside of huge institutions like the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, just this ginormous academic institution. It can be inside of a pharmaceutical company. Even companies like Regeneron or Novartis, they have their own R&D divisions and they have manual work happening inside of them.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

And synthetic biology companies like Asimov, which is building this tool for building genetic circuits, which is a whole another thing, or Ginkgo Bioworks, which is building these biomaterials, and Amyris. So those companies also have R&D divisions. So we're trying to roll out to them as well.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

In terms of our dreams, we want to be able to provide our automated labs to schools and to universities and to undergraduates at these universities who are standing and doing this lab work all the time. But in terms of our first market that we're addressing as a company, it's mainly R&D departments inside of companies and universities.

Quinn:

Interesting. I'm into it. So I want to provide a little context for folks. Again, having these series of conversations with incredible folks that are working with and receive this fellowship grant from 776, those incredible people, we've talked to a few, we've got a bunch more to go, one of the mandates is this is not just like, hey, spend a hundred grand however you want and have a nice trip. It's you've got to ship.

Quinn:

It seems like you're really on schedule to do that. How far along were you pre-776? I guess, where did that come in on your timeline and how is that changing your work?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I left school in order to work on this company about a year ago, which was a big decision. But I started on this company through the 1517 Fund. They have this program called the Invisible College Program. And so, they invest $50,000 into your company and you work on it for a little bit, and then they invest more later.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Their fund is focused on all sorts of companies. A lot of those people aren't necessarily my age or it's not a community like the 776 fund has. I was really aching for other 20-year-olds, 23-year-olds working on these hard problems. That's what I seeked out when applying to the 776 foundation and fellowship program. One way I learned about synthetic biology was through Reddit.

Quinn:

Nice, synergy.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes, there's this subreddit called r/labrats where people give advice on experiments, which is often hard to find. There's no stack overflow. People are working on it. It's a big subreddit. I don't know, like hundreds of thousands of people are on it. That's why Alexis Ohanian was also my hero as well, because he had helped start Reddit. That also excited me. Also Lissie helped make Reddit better as well as the former chief of staff.

Quinn:

Sure. 590,000 lab rats. Holy cow.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes.

Quinn:

I mean this whole thing, I always give a preface to people, but long time listeners will nod or just turn off their speaker. But I try to understand these things as best I can. I'm fairly nerdy. I get it. I try to tie all the big pieces together, but it's often mile wide, maybe an inch deep if we're lucky.

Quinn:

I always think to myself ... And the example I often use is I talked to these two incredible women a year or two ago who were working with a pediatric cancer research arm of the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation. Zebra fish A and some C, D somewhere has cured some variety of childhood cancers. I'm like, where do I even start? What are we talking about?

Quinn:

This is yours. Not to minimize your work, but I don't even know where to buy zebra fish. I'm sure I could figure out where to buy robot parts, but how to build them much less for $600 ,and also not to just drop test tubes everywhere is completely inexplicable to me.

Quinn:

So it's also impressive to me that, again, not just at your age, but that you've got such a fascinating perspective on, hold on, let me take a step back and really try to understand how this should work and where it's failing, I guess, or the less sexy parts, but clearly the parts that open up so much more. Do you feel like that's something that makes 1517 and 776 attracted to your work is that perspective?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I very much resonate with the ... I think what we're doing is slightly like unsexy because we're trying to make the field more accessible. We're doing the ... I don't want to say shit work, but we're trying to clean up but the field.

Quinn:

No, but it is. But that's what makes it work. That's the whole thing. I mean you often find some of the most integral people to the economy are people who own nuts and bolts companies, because guess what? Without that, nothing's getting done.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Definitely. That's the company I really want to build. For example, The ODIN where I got the CRISPR kit is not that many people know about it, but it's had a profound impact on a lot of people's lives. I want the profound impact part. I don't mind if people know about us or don't know about us, but there are so many people who've created these little tools out there. They didn't get very much PR. They're just there for other scientists to use, but they've actually enabled a lot of research and made the field more accessible to a ton of people.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

The person who started Sci-Hub, her name is ... Gosh. I think it's Alexandria, I'm not sure. I think she references the Library of Alexandria a lot, and then that's related to her name. She's had a huge impact on the field. That's the sort of work that makes me excited.

Quinn:

You had to at least temporarily leave school to do this. I know that's part of the whole 776 deal. I guess the surface-level question is how did that go and backing up a little bit is tell me a little bit about the relationships in your life, friends, family, professors, advisors, people providing you grants to make you feel so supported to do that, or not.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So I went to Harvey Mudd College, which is a small school in Claremont, California for engineering, if anyone knows it. It's a very nerdy school. Most people in that college, or a lot of them, go get PhDs. I was very immersed in the biology department there and I think I'm probably the only person who's ever dropped out of school in order to start a company from the biology department. That was interesting. I don't think anyone was expecting that or had any context.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I think a lot of people in that department are excited but also confused. There's not really an entrepreneurial edge to that department. A lot of people from Harvey Mudd, they go on to become professors. Professors are amazing people. I'd love to be a professor one day, honestly they get to nerd out about their field and just be immersed in what they love. That’s amazing. I really didn’t have a path laid out for me. I just kind of took the plunge because I’ve been trying to do this work for a very long time. I had my own lab at Harvey Mudd that I was running and I ended up having a very difficult time trying to balance my school work with that lab. I eventually decided that it was best for me - I couldn’t do both, which was a really hard decision. But I actually decided to leave school before getting  any funding.

Quinn:

Oh, shit. Okay.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah. I was just going to ride it out. My parents also, they're immigrants from Iran. They're used to very traditional education system. So I also shocked them a bit as well. But I've done some crazy things. When I was 15, I hitchhiked in order to get to a lab meeting that I was leading, because no one would drive me.

Quinn:

How far are we talking? How far did you hitchhike?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Oh, like an hour away.

Quinn:

I mean that's still something.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I just stuck my thumb out on the street and people were making eye contact with me and shaking their heads no, like, "What's wrong with you?" But then this one person actually drove me.

Quinn:

That's incredible. The other day, my six-year-old, no joke, this was three days ago, goes, "Hey, what states is it still legal to hitchhike in?" I was like, "One, I don't know totally. Two, why? Where did this come from?" So, anyway, maybe you can have a conversation with him. Pros and cons. Pros and cons. Well, that's exciting. Did your parents see it coming? Did they understand the struggle you were dealing with at school?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I remember this conversation I had with my mom, because I had already taken a year off before then. I was working at this thing called the biohacker space, which is a community lab. It's like a makerspace but with genetic engineering equipment.

Quinn:

Sure.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So I had taken a year off to work there and also to work at this company called Asimov in Boston. My mom was upset about that already. So that was a couple years back. So then after COVID and after doing remote college, my mom was driving me to the airport and I was telling her about this project I had worked on over the summer. She was like, "Wait, what project?" Then I told her more about it and she's like, "You're not leaving school, are you?" Then I said, "No, no. Yes." Then there was a huge conversation around that.

Quinn:

How do they feel about your work now?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Excited. I definitely am where I am today because of them. My mom, she has always been very passionate about fighting the causes that she cares about. She would go to protests and rallies. They were immigrants from Iran, so there are a bunch of injustices happening in that country. She always encouraged us to actually act on the problems that we see in the world. They're both engineers. So I definitely took inspiration from both of them. I think they are proud and a little startled, but proud nonetheless.

Quinn:

When did they immigrate?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

30 years ago. I was born in the US.

Quinn:

So before that. We know that much.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes. Yes.

Quinn:

What sort of engineers are they?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

My mom's a mechanical engineer and my dad's a chemical engineer. They run their own small business right now.

Quinn:

That's really cool.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Thanks. They're running a machine shop, I think, is the word for it.

Quinn:

That is fascinating. So are we going to go back to school? What do we think? Or is that it?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So actually I learned a ton in college. I love learning and I love being forced to learn things I'd never learned before. So I study special relativity, which is what happens when things go the speed of light, and is super crazy and fun, and other physics subjects like electromagnetism. I learned computer science and logic.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

And so, I do want to take some classes that I didn't finish taking there. I'm thinking 15 years from now, I'll come back as a very old college student and just finish taking those courses. But not to get the degree, just to learn the topics.

Quinn:

Sure.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

One of my favorite courses in college is discrete mathematics. There's this-

Quinn:

I mean you could literally say that that is anything and I would believe you. What is discrete mathematics and why is it your favorite?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

It's so fundamental. You don't really need a background in math to study it. But it's so-

Quinn:

You don't.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

It's like counting. How do you count the best? If you have five cookies, how do you arrange them properly? You can teach it to your child. It's just a way of thinking. It's very difficult despite not needing a ton of previous knowledge, which is really a fun place to be.

Quinn:

I feel like you're just trying to make me feel better at this point.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

No, you should check it out. I'm sure you'd enjoy it.

Quinn:

Discrete ... Okay. I mean already though, I mean truly ... It's interesting. I moved my kids across the country about a year ago. And so, they've been in two different public school systems. We're lucky, both of the schools they've been in have been pretty good and a lot of community involvement in this. But it's really interesting how different the philosophies and methodologies are between their learning, most notably, frankly, math. Truly not just how to do math, but how to think about how to do math than how I grew up. It's really fascinating stuff. Often it trips us up. We're like, "I don't know what you're talking about. All I know is it's 10." The answer is 10, but you get there however you need to.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Definitely. I think math education is super interesting and really important. I think you'd enjoy it because it's like you get to the solution in a bunch of different ways, and different people have different ways of solving the problem. I'm sure it's shaped by their own experiences, social experiences, not just their mathematical experiences.

Quinn:

All right. I'm going to do some YouTube and see what I can find. Let's see if I can pull this together. Maybe we'll have another conversation where I try to explain discrete mathematics to you and you just turn the camera off.

Quinn:

So before we get to the last things, action steps, and last questions I ask everybody, what is the biggest thing you're wrestling with right now? What is your biggest obstacle? As we talked about where you want to be in a year and in five years, what's in your way?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Right now we're trying to engineer very quickly, but we're trying to balance this desire to create a really great robot that helps people, and this desire to release quickly and iterate on our prototype.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

That's what we're grappling with right now. We're trying to roll out by December 31st. But there's this problem where if your robot spills a tube, the contents of that tube could be worth more than the robot itself.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

A lot of companies, they try to release quickly. There's this quote called fail fast. But the problem is that I don't want to create a product that causes more harm than good in the world.

Quinn:

I mean look at Facebook, fail fast. Please don't. No more of that.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

No more, especially if you're grappling with the lives of younger people, like children who are using Instagram. I want to create a technology that makes people's lives better. I think it's very easy when you promise a lot to a community to make their lives worse, because I personally think it's worse to promise something and not fulfill it than to never promise it at all. So that's what we're grappling with right now.

Quinn:

It's very intentional. It's very considerate. I mean you know you're going to have to iterate along the way, and you're going to want to, of course. I mean you're at ground zero, effectively, as much progress you've made in this 10 years since you walked by that doctor's office and how far CRISPRs come, and all these different things. But at the same time, like you said, you don't want to overpromise and sabotage somebody's experiment when they're like the whole point was you were supposed to make this easier and Frank the robot dropped my test tube. That's not super helpful. Shit is going to happen. That's the way it goes, especially when you're working with hardware and things like that. But it's a fine line.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Exactly. There are existing robots that have dropped the tubes and scarred biologists. So we have to get over that initial knee-jerk reaction to automation for some people.

Quinn:

Yeah, I imagine. It's a complicated one. It's exciting. So I want to talk about, as we call them, action steps. We can cover a few different levels here from ground level, a little higher. What are really specific questions that people should be asking of whether it's school boards, if they've got children, or their teachers, whatever it might be, city councils, universities, or policymakers on the state or federal level?

Quinn:

What are things they can be doing to help you open up these bottlenecks a little more, both funding companies like yours or eventually obtaining products from a company like yours for, again, their city, their school, whatever, their makerspace, whatever it might be? I know that's a broad swath, but what do you feel like among all that is going to be most effective?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I think there are a few things. People not just in elementary schools but in middle schools, high schools can ask for our technology to be introduced into their labs, and we will try and make it as accessible as possible. But we really want to have this impact.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

We started this company out of a passion for making science accessible to people. And so, a way to help us is to help us introduce our technology to these places, these schools, these universities, even government organizations like the NIH. We want to accelerate that important research that's happening.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

It's fun because normally I'd be in a lab using my pipette and working in one lab just doing that lab's research. But our dream is that we will help tons and tons of people do their research as well. So spreading the word of our technology and also asking for it.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

What's interesting is that some people are afraid to ask for equipment or for tools to do their work better. I've noticed that inside of PhD programs, where the PhD students are a little scared to ask their professor, "Can I have this technology?"

Roya Amini-Naieni:

But I think that more people should do that because a lot of the answers we've seen for why professors don't buy new technologies for their students is either they don't know about it or they don't understand the benefits. They're not the ones in the lab doing the research. They're the ones watching people do the research. They don't quite understand how much more efficient the science can be. So I think asking people for our technology.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Another one where there's probably a local genetically engineered machines team near you, an IGEM team near you, that you can join. Anyone listening as well can join as well. If there isn't one, you can just start your own. But that's a great way to get into the field and to understand the impact of synthetic biology.

Quinn:

Is there any specific resource, literally like a website people can go to search for those types of things?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah, it's called I-G-E-M dot org.

Quinn:

Great. It's like put in my zip code and find my IGEM team?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes, there's a tool for browsing IGEM teams around the world. You can sort by country and then you get more specific and you find the team.

Quinn:

Okay. If I don't find one, what do you feel like are some of the best resources for people to get started with this sort of thing? Where is there a kickstarter kit? Is there a curriculum or something like that for some kid who's like, "My school, I'm going to be shaking pipettes forever"?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes. There's an amazing website called The ODIN. T-H-E, space, O-D-I-N dot com. That website actually sells kits. It's the person who made the CRISPR kit that I used, but also sells kits and also sells classes, hands-on classes, for how to do genetic engineering, which is super unique.

Quinn:

What ages are we talking about? Where is that applicable?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I mean I started when I was like 12.

Quinn:

You don't want to know what I was doing when I was 12. I don't even remember. That's awesome. What other ... A new question I've been marinating on asking folks ... It's gimmicky, but I love this stuff. You can call it swipe file, whatever you want. But what are two to three tools that help you do your job that you cannot live without? This can be personal, this can be a piece of software, this could be going for a run. What are three things that are essential to this path for you?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Having a team is essential. It's really hard to keep yourself accountable if you're by yourself. Some people can do it. I have a problem. Seeing people around me who are working really encourages me to work harder. I think that's one of the reasons people like to stay in college, because there are a bunch of college students working on the same problems around you. But you can simulate that environment by having your own team. That's something I can't live without. I would say my dog is also someone I can't live without.

Quinn:

Talked for an hour and you didn't tell me about your dog yet. What's your dog's name?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Luna.

Quinn:

Of course. Amazing. Luna. What is Luna?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

She is a husky. I rescued her about three months ago.

Quinn:

Oh, shit. How old is Luna?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So the pound says that she's seven, but she seems way younger. I think they were wrong.

Quinn:

Okay. You know I'm going to need pictures.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Oh, of course.

Quinn:

A lot of pictures. Okay, great. Those will go-

Roya Amini-Naieni:

We have many.

Quinn:

Yeah. Fantastic. Any good dog mom. Got to have a lot of pictures. My wife's phone forever was just pictures ... No pictures of me. It was just pictures of our dogs. Then it became pictures of our kids. Still no pictures of me. I'm like, no, I get it. I get it. For sure. That's exciting.

Quinn:

All right, your team, your dog. I mean this is a ridiculous question, but for some reason there's still cat people out there. What does your dog provide for you?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

When you're trying to start a company, you have this huge vision for how you're going to change the world. It's going to take many years and it seems insurmountable at the beginning. What I like to do is do the things that I'm proud of that are little but easy. So one of them was rescuing a dog.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I went to the shelter and I was just there to help the animals. Then I asked them, "What dogs are on your kill list?" Then they said she was on number one. I asked, "Do you think she's going to get adopted?" They said no one visited her ever. So I wanted her.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So I took her home. I mean I love her. She's an amazing dog. Very well-behaved. I've been blessed. She doesn't rip up anything. Just doing things that you're proud of that are small and a constant reminder that you've had some impact, even if your company fails, I think is important.

Quinn:

That's awesome. I mean I love my children, but coming home to a dog, who truly ... They're just so excited every day. I mean as long as you do the hard work and provide them for love. I mean you say it's a little thing, but it's a lot. It's a lot of work and you're only three months into it. I'm glad you have a dog that doesn't need things. That's fucking great for you.

Quinn:

But it is a lot of work. But I mean it is truly an unparalleled friendship. Like you said, it can help put things in perspective a little bit. If your robot drops 12 pipettes in a day, you can still come home to a dog, Luna, who's happy to see you.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Exactly. She won't know about the pipettes.

Quinn:

No, you don't even have to tell her.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I don't.

Quinn:

It's fantastic. It's a dream. Or you can tell her everything and she's like, "Great. I love you." It's the best. Team, Luna. What's the third thing?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Third thing. Well, this is more of a physical tool, but my Bento Lab. It's a bento box-shaped lab.

Quinn:

I am so excited about this. Tell me everything.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

In my ventures into trying to find accessible equipment throughout my whole life, there's this one company called Bento Lab. They also had a kickstarter. So their idea was to make these portable, beautiful bento-shaped labs. So normally labs are like ... They're really big. As you can see, this equipment is kind of-

Quinn:

Yeah, 100%.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

They wanted to shove all of that into a tiny little box. Now I just have this beautiful little lab sitting on my desk that I use. It's a great product. I used it for my genetic engineering at this company for a little bit because it's ... We've had to move so much for this company. We just moved from Huntington Beach to San Francisco, and it's just so easy. I just have a pocket lab that I stick in my backpack and bring here.

Quinn:

That is so cool. That's awesome. Is it affordable?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

It's like $2,000 for the whole thing.

Quinn:

Well, it's not Fisher Price. I'm not saying it's $40. But-

Roya Amini-Naieni:

That's quite affordable for a lab that does PCR. So PCR is used for doing COVID testing, for example. The gel box, which is used for analyzing DNA sequences by length, and a centrifuge and a few other things. Having all that instead of a box for $2,000 is very accessible.

Quinn:

That you can put in your back.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Honestly, it's accessible price-wise, but it's also just so convenient.

Quinn:

This is the thing. Look, we don't have floating skateboards yet. I know we get the big ones with the big wheels. I get it. That would be really fun. But when you talk about kickstarted CRISPR kits, when you talk about ...

Quinn:

Again, we're on the cusp of solving an enormous amount of genetic diseases, whether it's through one-time applications or gene-drive stuff. When you talk about a Bento Lab, first off I was like, "Ooh, I got to order lunch," because you said bento box. Then Bento lab and these incredible instruments, PCR. No one knew what the fuck a PCR was two years ago. Everybody knows what a PCR is now. It's like, oh, now you've got to go get the PCR because your rapid's got the two lines on it. Everybody knows of this. You can do it in a box, you can put in your backpack.

Quinn:

At the same time, it's so funny you said that. My background on my computer is this ... It's a Mac app and it is called Downlink. It's literally just ... It updates every 20 minutes. It's any satellite photo you want of the earth, for real.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Wow.

Quinn:

It just updates in your background. You're like, "What are you talking about?" I'm sitting here watching the hurricane off Florida. I don't have to go to Weather Channel. It's just updating in the background while we're talking about Bento Labs and your robot arms and all this. It's just like we have to make these things more accessible to more people.

Quinn:

One, it's the right thing to do. Two, who knows what we'll enable from it. Three, when you make them too expensive or too much red tape or whatever it might be, you're playing with one hand behind your back, effectively going like, right, but if Roya can't access these things, then who knows what we're not able to build and what problems we can't solve or people we can't help.

Quinn:

I'm just a moron who stares at the hurricane all day, but what might some kid looking at this go and look over at the drought and this and this and put two and two together that I can ever figure out? So it's all very inspirational. I think it's very, very cool what you're doing and I wouldn't know where to start.

Quinn:

So last couple of questions, Roya, before I get you out of here, so you can go solve the world. The first time in your life ... And you talked about this a little bit, kind of, when you realized whether yourself, part of a team, you seem to be really into teams, where you were like, "I have the power of change," or, "I can do something meaningful," running for student office, whatever it might be. What was that inkling for you?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

When I was younger, I snuck into a college research team.

Quinn:

Wait. What are we talking about? How young?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

14 or 13. I don't remember.

Quinn:

Awesome. Awesome.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Sorry. This is another action item, potentially.

Quinn:

Please.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

College teams, they don't expect an outsider to just find the flyer and join the team. So if anyone wants to join a college research team, just show up to their team meeting, if it's in the area, because college campuses are actually open.

Quinn:

Just make your mom drop you off on the corner so they don't see.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah, or take the bus.

Quinn:

Take the bus. Yeah, 100%.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah, when your parents are away. I don't know if I'm encouraging good behaviors in children right now, but-

Quinn:

As we've learned, there's good trouble and there's bad trouble. This is fantastically good trouble.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So I was an underage, non-matriculated student on a college research team. I have the team leader there, Anastasia Nikolov. She's the one who knew my age and let me in regardless. She's the project manager of the team.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

But I had joined that team and I was doing research there. The department that was funding the research team, they got new funding from another department. This department was analyzing the paperwork and they found out that a non-matriculated child was on this genetic engineering team. They threatened to pull funding unless if other people like me joined.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

That's when I was like, "This is unfair." I got so much experience from joining this team. These are my best friends that I've made. This is the research that makes me wake up in the morning and feel proud of what I'm going to do for the rest of my day. I think other people my age should be able to have that in their lives. So then I was like, no, this is not okay. Then I started the high school IGEM team in Washington State.

Quinn:

That's amazing. I mean I love some good vigilantism. That's awesome. Oh man, that's really cool. Who is a particular person in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I would say my advisor, or our company advisor, Scott Harris. He is the co-founder of SolidWorks and Onshape, and these are widely used CAD tools. Onshape is actually so good that as a biologist I was able to CAD tube holders for my reagents and learn how to CAD because Onshape was so user-friendly and accessible and just really a great experience. I want to create that experience with our robots. I want people who aren't biologists to be able to use them.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Scott, he's helped us a lot in understanding how to do this user research, how to test your product, how to build something that's used by millions of people and loved by that many people. He's just spent so much more time than we expected on us. He's just a very helpful person, very down to earth, and encouraging. He introduced us to so many people who helped us as well.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

So I have really appreciated his support and the fact that the co-founder of two of these companies that have changed the world would be willing to help a few people who just started their own companies is amazing.

Quinn:

I love it. Thank you for sharing and thank you to him. I would like you to drop the humility for a second and tell me why you think he's spending so much time with you.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I think he has seen ... My co-founder Max, he's our robotics engineer and he's an amazing mechatronics engineer. He's done many different projects in the field. So Scott was actually his professor at Olin. He knows how good of an engineer Max is. I think he's seen my passion for what we're working on. He also knows my background at Harvey Mudd. And so, he really believes in what we're building and that we're capable to do it, I think. Maybe it's why he's helping us.

Quinn:

Awesome, Awesome. I appreciate you sharing that. Also, shout out to Anastasia, who's the woman who let you stay on the team.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yes, Anastasia. Anastasia. She's amazing. She is also very passionate and principled. She fights for what she believes in. I was lucky to have her on that team. We're still friends today. She's currently a scientist at Just Biotherapeutics right now, but she's also very nerdy and very into synthetic biology.

Quinn:

Can I ask how and when did she discover that you were 13 or 14?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I had been emailing her and I just said, "Oh, I don't go here. Can I join?" Then she saw me at the interest meeting afterwards, and I was like, "Hi, Anastasia. Thank you for having me join this interest meeting." She just said, "Oh, by the way, may I ask how old are you?" and I was like, "Oh, I'm 14 or 15." I don't remember the age in particular. Then she looked at the other person on the team, Chris, and they were just like, "What?" like, "Oh God, that's so young." Then they just let it go.

Quinn:

But that's awesome. I mean, why not? If people aren't in danger, why not?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Yeah. When I started my IGEM team, I let people who were younger than me join, when I had joined.

Quinn:

I think it's fantastic. It's a fantastic way to keep the ladder down, even if it's just someone being exposed to something that they otherwise wouldn't. Last one, Roya, what is a book you've read this year, opened your mind to a topic you haven't considered before or that's actually changed your thinking in some way?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

There's a productive book that I read and it's called The Mom Test. It's great for user research, how to do customer discovery and talk to people and gain as much information as you can into how to make your product better.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

A lot of people use it. I didn't expect the information that was presented. It's very insightful. One tip is don't pitch your product when you're interviewing people because that would bias their answers. The interviewee tries to please you in what they're saying, and you don't want them to do that. You want it straight. You want them to tell you if they hate something or if they like it and why not in relation to what you're building. So that was a really helpful book.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Then there's a not helpful book. It actually did change my perspective on a lot of things. It's called Worm. It's a web serial and I'm pretty sure it's millions of words long. I think it's like multiple Harry Potter series worth of web serial. So it's definitely a commitment.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

But the author who has a pseudonym. He or she, I don't know, spends their time just writing this web serial for years without getting published or anything. It's super well thought out and it is very detailed and really epic.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

This web serial, there's this main character and she uses bugs to fight evil or whatever. And so, she thinks of these novel ways to use bugs that no one would've thought of, like to swarm them into a silhouette of a human so that it diverts attention from her running across the scene.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I just think it's very cool, very nerdy. That book gets not enough attention. It's a really good series. But because it's a web serial, not that many people know about it.

Quinn:

Is it on Wattpad or something like that, or is it just on their website?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

I think it's on WordPress, actually. It's on their blog.

Quinn:

All right. I'm going to need the link to that. We'll share it. That's awesome. Roya, we've kept you for long enough. This is all so awesome. I really appreciate you sharing your story and your company and your mission and dreams and hopes and all that with us. Where can our listeners follow you and the company online?

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Our website is currently being updated. It is T-R-I-L-O B-I-O dot com. It's currently a blank page, but we're really making it more interesting soon. Also, we're on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

Quinn:

Perfect. Rock and roll. Well, thank you so much for your time and everything that you're trying to do. It is such a vital, like you said, unsexy shit work, however you want to call it, but it's what unlocks everything else. Without that, we can't do the fancy stuff, we can't do the groundbreaking stuff. I really appreciate it. I think it's really, really cool.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Thank you and thanks for having me. I look forward to reading more Important, Not Important in the coming weeks.

Quinn:

Oh Lord, you've got enough to do. 

Quinn:

Podcast is hosted by me. It's produced by Willow Beck. It is edited by Anthony Lucciani. The music is by a gentleman named Tim Blain. Folks can read our critically acclaimed newsletter and get notified about new podcast conversations like this at importantnotimportant.com. We've got fantastic T-shirts, hoodies, coffee mugs, all kinds of things at importantnotimportant.com/store.

Quinn:

I am on Twitter, @QuinnEmmett or @importantnotimp. Like I told you, Roya, I can't even get all the characters. It's like I've made such a huge mistake. We're also on LinkedIn. Search my name or the company. You can send feedback, questions, anything for Roya to me on Twitter or questions@importantnotimportant.com. That is it. We are out of here, and I appreciate your time.

Roya Amini-Naieni:

Thank you for having me.

Quinn:

For sure.

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