Meet the Innovators: Jeremy Agresti
TPB: What is synthetic biology?
Jeremy: I have a short answer: it’s using biology to make things. We are biology and every living thing around us is biology. Synthetic biology is making complex molecules or organisms that would be difficult, expensive or impossible to create using traditional methods like chemistry. With synthetic biology we can take the exquisite biological architecture all around us to create the things we need faster and more efficiently. In fact, in almost every case, synthetic biology has the potential to make a product that is better and more sustainable. The problem right now is those products are too expensive and take too long to develop.
TPB: Why has interest in synthetic biology heated up recently?
Jeremy: Some of it is the strong societal demand for sustainability. But the nerdy reductionist answer is that we’re approaching a convergence where we finally have the computational tools to make sense of the enormous amount of both functional and sequence data required to make real progress. This convergence is driving us toward breakthroughs in biotech -- particularly in agriculture, energy, and medicine.
TPB: Why did you start Triplebar Bio?
Jeremy: I wanted to solve big problems with biology, but I recognized there were many bottlenecks limiting its impact that no one seemed to be addressing. For example, recent breakthroughs in reading and writing genomes have had a tremendous impact, but our ability to actually measure the function of the changes has not scaled the same way. It’s like being able to read and write a language without understanding the meaning. This measurement problem is what we are solving at Triplebar. When we can understand the meaning behind the language of biology, it will drive evolution at hyperspeed.
With the combination of capital, infrastructure, and shared vision that TPB provided, pursuing solutions to these problems became a viable opportunity. I was able to build a team that could focus solely on one core belief: we will never realize the potential of synthetic biology until we develop better tools.
TPB: What is Triplebar’s mission?
Jeremy: Our mission is to increase the carrying capacity of the planet. Technology has always played a role in supporting the growing population. In the industrial age, the use of fertilizers, petroleum-based chemistry, and energy greatly increased this capacity and our quality of life, but it came at a cost. With synthetic biology, we can create renewable alternatives that can meet demand in a more sustainable way.
TPB: Tell us about your background and how you became interested in synthetic biology?
Jeremy: I studied biology and biochemistry in college, which was a good place to funnel my inherent curiosity to learn about how things work. From there, I had great mentors that helped me to learn how to think, experiment, and believe in myself. A mentor at UC Davis taught me that as a biologist, it’s not enough to simply work with the methods we know; we can also create new tools to study and understand things we don’t even know about yet, and that I had the capability to do this. That was a big inspiration for me.
TPB: What do you tell students looking for careers in synthetic biology?
Jeremy: We’re looking for builders. It’s not enough to be interested in solving big problems, or to assume that senior management has the answers -- we want people who want to dig in and build things themselves that address those challenges.
We also need folks that can really see the big picture. Universities provide a good foundation in facts but students need to understand you’re not just responsible for doing the experiment, you’ve got to own the result. It’s like the parable about stonecutters: some think they’re building a wall; others understand they’re building a cathedral. Everyone we’ve hired so far is a builder of cathedrals.
TPB: What are you reading?
Jeremy: I’m reading Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker. This is a year when it’s easy to get discouraged by the noise on the newsfeed. Pinker’s book is an important reminder that the principals of reason and progress from the Age of Enlightenment are still at play today. It may seem like we’re regressing but the truth is we are making progress. Reminding myself of that helps me stay focused on contributing to that progress.
TPB: What inspires you?
Jeremy: The unimaginable vastness of the biological solution space. If we were to make all of the potential variants of just a single protein, it would require far, far, far more mass than the entire universe. That’s just a single protein. Now scale that to an organism with thousands of proteins. Now imagine all the diversity that you are aware of in life as we know it. All that beautiful complexity and diversity has come from nature exploring the tiniest fraction of a fraction of the potential. Imagine what we can achieve if we can explore more!