by Antonio Regalado (MIT Technology Review)
In any discussion of biohacking, Exhibit A is likely to be the “glowing plant,” the wildly successful 2013 Kickstarter campaign that raised $484,013 to create bioluminescent plants visible at night.
Just one problem, though. There is still no glowing plant.
The Glowing Plant project, since renamed Taxa Biotechnologies, has not made any plants able to emit light unassisted. The seeds it promised to its backers are already two years overdue, putting the project on track to become a Kickstarter failure. Meanwhile, it continues to take pre-orders for the plant on its own website.
“What it says is that biotechnology is not as easy as portrayed in the popular media,” says Todd Kuiken, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., who studies synthetic biology and was among the backers of the project. “All these stories that people are going to make viruses or new animals in their garage, well, it’s just not as easy as connecting Legos together.”
Yet the Kickstarter campaign did make it sound easy. Its creators said they would print firefly genes or those from bioluminescent bacteria and then add them to a plant to make it emit a greenish light. Anyone who donated $40 was promised a plant within 12 months. For a $150 contribution, you’d get a glowing rose. The project’s core aim has been to add six genes into the genome of tobacco plants and coördinate them as an entire metabolic pathway. And that has proved very difficult to do. Familiar GMOs from companies like Monsanto don’t attempt anything so challenging.
“It was a poor choice of product. It’s on the edge of what’s possible,” says Antony Evans, the Cambridge University math major, former mobile app marketer, and entrepreneur who is CEO of Taxa and heads the project. “I personally feel terrible we haven’t shipped yet. But it’s not like we took the money and ran.” Just the opposite: Taxa has spent all its Kickstarter money and then some, including on salaries, rent, and the purchase of gene parts it has used in several hundred attempts to alter plants. The total spent so far is above $900,000 and includes funds raised from angel investors.
If it fails, the glowing plant would rank among large Kickstarters not to deliver on their products, says Ethan Mollick, a professor at the Wharton School of Business who studies crowdfunding. He says about nine percent of Kickstarter projects fail to deliver what they’d promised. While there’s no legal penalty for that, it’s a black mark that project founders will go to great lengths to avoid.
Rather than conceding defeat, Evans is now attempting to raise as much as $1 million more on Wefunder, a site that, since new regulations went in force in May, allows any member of the public to buy shares in risky private companies. It’s like a new Kickstarter, this time with stock instead of products in return. Evans says the new funding will first go to a different, more feasible product, a fragrant moss with a single added gene that makes it smell like patchouli oil.
The air freshener idea could save the company if it sells well, but several thousand Kickstarter backers will still be waiting for their glowing plant. “We don’t want to be a Kickstarter that fails, but obviously we don’t have the funds to refund it either,” Evans says. He says if Taxa can’t eventually make the plants, he will “do the right thing,” like offering Kickstarter backers the moss or, potentially, shares in the company instead.
A successful campaign
The glowing plant project is so far the highest-profile venture to come out of the do-it-yourself biology community, an expanding cadre of scientists and amateurs who work on independent projects at a network of shared lab spaces, or from their homes. The movement is mostly hobbyists and educators, but increasingly it has the ambition to create medicines or new consumer products outside of big companies or academia.
“If you have an idea, DIY biology is giving people a third option, and crowdfunding is a way to finance it,” says Maria Chavez, director of community engagement at BioCurious, the shared lab in Silicon Valley. Other projects underway include an attempt by Chavez to make vegan cheese by synthesizing milk in yeast, an effort to biomanufacture human insulin, and a DNA analysis kit the size of a Japanese lunch box called Bento Lab whose creators raised over $200,000 on Kickstarter.
Evans came up with the plant project with Omri Amirav-Drory, the CEO of a bioinformatics company called Genome Compiler, who believed that a glowing plant could be lucrative and a “great story” for DIY biology. They then connected with Kyle Taylor, a science teacher with a Stanford PhD in plant molecular biology who had been tinkering with bioluminescence at BioCurious.
With money from Amirav-Drory, Evans and Taylor put together a professional video that talked up how synthetic biology could lead to ecofriendly substitutes for electric lights. They also arranged for Austen Heinz, the brash CEO of Cambrian Genomics, a DNA printing startup whose lab space they would later camp out in, to sign on with a $10,000 commitment. Having one big-ticket backer, they knew, would increase the odds their pitch would go viral, and it did.
Initially, they’d sought only $65,000, but ended up raising half a million as people flocked to sign on. “It was the first big synthetic biology project that had ever been crowdfunded,” says Chavez. “And it was so successful people immediately said, “Oh, my God, GMOs.” The ensuing debate over distributing GM seeds to the public quickly vaulted the partners to national attention. (Kickstarter later decided to prevent any other project from handing out GMOs as rewards, citing regulatory uncertainty. But the plant project was unaffected.)
The team found a way to ensure the plants weren’t regulated at all. It involved exploiting a loophole in U.S. law that exempts certain GMOs from regulation if DNA is added using a gene gun, basically an air pistol that fires a gene-coated gold pellet into a plant cell. The $12,000 gene gun the team assembled remains its largest single investment in equipment.
What the team didn’t budget for was how hard engineering the plants correctly would be. They knew a dimly glowing tobacco plant had been made before, in 2010, but the scientist who carried out that work, Alexander Krichevsky, says it took him three years leading a lab at a well-equipped university, SUNY Stonybrook, to do it.
Krichevsky has since started his own glowing plant company, Bioglow, and says he has spent another three years trying to make the plants bright enough to interest consumers, a task which is ongoing. He says it was obvious to anyone in plant biology that Taxa’s timelines were unrealistic. “I was surprised by the promises they made. I thought, maybe they know something I don’t. Now I see that it is delusional,” he says. “They didn’t deliver anything for three years and I strongly doubt they ever will.”
A suicide in the lab
Evans and Taylor also started clashing over what the project’s real purpose was. Was it a potentially important new business or just a DIY demonstration? In 2014, the team made it into the first class of biotech companies to be accepted into Y Combinator, the high-profile accelerator that invests $120,000 in each startup and helps them polish their investor pitch. But Taylor says he saw the point as inspiring people to get interested in science, not raising more money. “I viewed it as educational. But that isn’t the way it was viewed by others,” he says.
By then he’d also concluded that getting a plant to glow in a way that is visible to the naked eye was going to be difficult. “As I dug in more, the depth of the problem became much more apparent. I started to understand what it would take to become an actual product,” he says. By 2015, Taylor, who is from Kansas and was keen to instead work on commercial food crops, had resigned from the project.
I asked Taylor if he thought Taxa should be raising more money. “Anyone investing in the Wefunder should ask that question and then decide for themselves,” says Taylor. “I am trying to put the glowing plant behind me.”
The atmosphere of pressure to succeed with exaggerated claims for synthetic biology was real enough that it turned tragic that year. That’s when Heinz, the 31-year-old CEO of Cambrian, committed suicide by hanging himself in the room where Taxa grew its tobacco plants. He’d become a kind of spokesman for a variety of fringe ideas in synthetic biology, including the plants, and engineering human babies. But Cambrian was in trouble with its own plans to “democratize” biology as it seemed to make little progress getting its technology to work.
Evans says his own low point came this February. That is when Taxa tested plants into which they’d inserted a genetic cassette they were sure would produce their first self-illuminating plant. Instead they found the plants didn’t emit any light at all. They were duds. It appears one of the genes had broken when it was fired into the plant. “That was the first time I started to have doubts about whether we ever get there,” says Evans.
Evans arranged for Taxa to raise new funds on Wefunder, this time selling shares to the public under new regulations that allow anyone, not just professional investors, to invest in risky private companies. So far, they’ve sold about $250,000 in shares, but could still sell more. The company is valued at less than $7 million.
Evans says the top priority now is pivoting from glowing plants to scented moss, a move he says is necessary to keep the company going. The moss, built under contract for Taxa by specialists in Denmark, was much simpler to make and may be possible to sell commercially soon. “The moss will ship before the plant. Then we will work on the plant.”
To Mollick, the Wharton professor, it’s worth questioning why a group whose Kickstarter is so delayed should crowdfund again. He says the company might do well to first square up its Kickstarter obligation. “Not delivering is bad. But not saying that you are not delivering is worse,” says Mollick. “The concern here would be that someone implicitly gives up on the Kickstarter project and is using it as initial R&D funds for a new company.”
The company’s fundraising documents raise concerns too. The main one is how Taxa plays up that it has booked $650,000 in highly profitable “pre-orders” for its glowing plant. (That figure includes both what it raised on Kickstarter and money it made preselling plants on its website, where they go for $100 each.) But in reality there is no plant and no profits, just thousands of backers wondering where their reward is.
“They are still promising us that we’ll get this plant,” says Kuiken.
For now, there are still lots of true believers in Taxa and synthetic biology. Evans says more than a quarter of the new investors are earlier Kickstarter backers. These include Amirav-Drory, who says he bought $500 in shares.
But other Kickstarter supporters, like Adam Ericsen, a postdoctoral scientist in genomics at the University of Wisconsin who gave $40 to get a plant, say they won’t invest again. Ericsen says he’s tired of the explanations for why the plant doesn’t glow, and he’s bothered by the way the project has turned into the launchpad for a startup company with a different aim. “They’re thinking of this as a business,” he says, “But I’m like, just make the plant.”