Hackathons have become a popular activity across a variety of disciplines as a way to engage the community to solve problems and challenges in a short space of time. They are perhaps most often seen in IT, with teams of coders competing to develop products across all sorts of applications and sectors. We spent four days last week mentoring teams at the first-ever UK BioHackathon, at the University of Cambridge. The competition was held in the state-of-the-art University of Cambridge Plant Science laboratory, the very same one where Darwin cut his teeth as an undergraduate. The event was a global first, aiming to bring teams from around the world together to develop and pitch synthetic biology products during the 13th Annual Technology Ventures Conference on Saturday 25th. Seven teams worked for 96 hours on their product ideas, which ranged from digital interfaces through to a smart toothbrush concept.
Can Synthetic Biology harness the power of the Hackathon?
One of the big challenges for this event was the issue of time – how can useful ideas be developed in only 4 days, when lab techniques in molecular biology take days or weeks to complete? The answer to this was not obvious, and credit goes to all the teams who took this onboard and worked within this constraint with great ingenuity and insight. We are often told in the sales world to focus on benefits, not features, and this maxim held true through the BioHackathon. The successful teams delivered a pitch focused on the need that their innovation would fulfill, rather than the technical details by which it did so. Synthetic Biology is still a young, tech-dominated field and we can run the risk of failing to tell the wider world enough about our end product, and spend too much time on the underlying technical advances.
How does a Hackathon help advance synthetic biology?
The striking observation about the teams taking part was the range of technical skills and the different backgrounds they had. This diversity was a key to the success of their projects – software, biology and hardware skills were all combined to make products that had real utility and advantages for users. This mirrors the real way forward for synthetic biology too – as practitioners we need to maximise the benefit of all these different capabilities, and gain the benefit of creating useful products, not just technologies. At Cambridge Consultants we talk a lot about bringing the rigor of engineering and standardised design process into the wetlab environment, and the real gains we have seen in product development in terms of speed, cost and delivery reinforce our belief that this approach is really the best path for synthetic biology. We’re not alone in having this opinion, and it is heartening to see the mantras of design-test-build and ‘engineering biology’ also being promoted by companies and academic groups.
The other great learning from the BioHackathon is seeing the teams work together collaboratively to create great ideas and products, but also the harness the competitive tension between them to spur them on to real delivery in a very tight timeframe. As a whole, the synthetic biology community is still comparatively small and is well placed to similarly benefit from both competition and collaboration.
So – how did it go?
Cambridge Consultants were one of the sponsors, and helped to mentor and guide the teams through their planning, prototyping and validation stages. A number of different Cambridge Consultants employees were present throughout the whole event, and enjoyed watching the ideas germinate and flourish in the fevered and fast-paced environment of the BioHackathon. All the teams did an exceptional job in a very tight timeframe, and the judges had a difficult decision to make. In the end, the winning team “αβrick” demonstrated the utility and benefits of their means of completely automating the design and fabrication of complex DNA parts called “BioBricks” and won the £1500 prizemoney on offer.
Congratulations have to go to the Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club and to Dr Tom Meany for coordinating the competition, and to all the sponsors and mentors for providing support. Finally – well done to all the teams! The whole event and the participants showed not only the great ideas that can come out of a Hackathon event, but why the field of synthetic biology has a bright future.