Listen to the interview here:
Raymond McCauley is a scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur working at the forefront of biotechnology. Raymond explores how applying technology to life “biology, genetics, medicine, agriculture” is affecting every one of us. He is known for using storytelling and down-to-earth examples to show how quickly these changes are happening, right now.
Raymond is Chair of Biology at Singularity University, Co-founder and Chief Architect for BioCurious, the hackerspace for biotech—a not-for-profit where professional scientists, DIY bio hobbyists, and entrepreneurs come together to design the next big thing to come out of a Silicon Valley garage. As part of the team that developed next-generation DNA sequencing at Illumina, he worked in bioinformatics, cancer sequencing, and personal genomics. His work and story have been featured in Wired, Forbes, Time, and Nature.
Raymond’s postgraduate work includes studies at Texas A&M University, Stanford, and UC Berkeley in electrical engineering, computer science, biophysics, biochemistry, bioinformatics, and nanotechnology.
With that, please enjoy today’s episode of the Biohacker.
Also available on:
Biohacker: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, this is Greg Wientjes with the BioHacker Podcast. The BioHacker Podcast brings you world class experts on longevity, biohacking and health. Our goal is to give you clear things you can do to improve your health, span a lifespan so you can make it to 100 plus years old. Today we have Raymond McCauley, a faculty member at Singularity University, where I studied in 2009. Raymond McCauley is a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur working at the frontier of biotechnology. Raymond explores how applying technology to life, biology, genetics, medicine and agriculture is affecting every one of us.
Raymond McCauley: When I was a kid in the 70s, back before we had cable TV or on demand anything, there were three TV stations and my parents, for fun, would go to see a movie and they would drop my sister and I off and a movie. And half of the movies were documentaries. And I’m doing air quotes around documentaries. And they were these things like Pyramid Power and Curly and Photography and auras. And at the time, there was one that had this big piece on cryonics. And I remember seeing that being just kind of affected by us like, wow, you know, how would that work? If they were the scientists who were freezing samples of different species, but they were actually talking about how you could thaw out an end after months or years. And because it had such a low volume of liquid in its body that it would be able to survive. And I was like, well, I want to experimentally verify that. And this is back before anybody would tell me, you know, you’re being cruel to some animal. I never worked on anything that was a vertebra.
Raymond McCauley: And I remember taking a pill bottle and putting ants in it that I’d caught and then putting it in the freezer and having, you know, like a one week, one month, three month thing and would take them out. It turned out that their nerves were damaged. They could move around shakily and do some things. But it wasn’t really dependent on how long they were in there, and I was so fascinated by that.
Biohacker: Wow, that’s amazing. Wait, wait. So you took ants and put it in like pill bottles. You froze them. And then after a week, you took them out and they were still alive?
Raymond McCauley: Oh, after three months and six months. And then there was one that had fallen.
Raymond McCauley: And they were alive for a while and, you know, could move around. But it was more than just like a nerve arc. It was they were moving purposefully and doing things.
Raymond McCauley: But they would were a little shaky. And I think there might have been a way to thaw them out in a better way. And like I say, this is, you know, my apologies to PETA that there would be somebody who would say, oh, you should never let children do that. And on reflection, it was a little cruel, but it was also, you know, ants. So I still do have a scale of intelligence and autonomy where I think it’s worse to mess with things at the top of the scale and not that bad at the bottom. But that was one of my first things where the idea of ants like these little social insect robots, you know, how do they work? And I got so fascinated and I had a microscope that I’d gotten as a Christmas present. Christmas presents were always the best thing. And so I would always have this list of equipment that I wanted. And I had a workbench in the garage and I’ve actually identified the specific junior chemistry set that I had with the little blue bottles, with the white adult safety things that my mom would keep the key that would take them off. But I had figured out how to do it with a screwdriver. But it was because I tried to feed my sister that NaCL, which is the salt. And my sister was like, Mom, he’s feeding me things out of this chemistry kit. And my mom came out and just read it, tan my hide. Give me a spanking, a beating. And, you know, she’s like, you will not use these things to experiment on your sister. I was like, but these are safe experiments. And besides, she lived.
BioHacker: So NaCL, that’s salt.
Raymond McCauley: Sodium chloride.
BioHacker: Oh, OK. So it’s like food, basically.
Raymond McCauley: And it was it was human grade salt, you know, it’s not hard to get table salt, but you know that most of the things in there were like how to make ink or how to make things change color or how to have an exothermic reaction. There was very little that was poisonous. And, you know, I’ve always remembered all of those things and just just getting to play with tools. But that was the thing, because I had a chemistry set and sort of my own biology set and all the electronics tools. And the little things that you would get at RadioShack, all mixed together. I thought of everything. I didn’t have a distinction in my mind between engineering and science. You have the tools. You take things apart to see how they work. You put them back together. You try to do it better. You know, you figure out how to sort of climb the hill and improve on a natural process or some human made process. And and I think that that really colored my worldview. So whenever I started formally, you know, much later looking at biology, it was as an experimental science, not so much to gain knowledge or prove things, but to how do you take it apart? How does it work? What are the mechanisms? What can we build? You know, if we can tinker with it, we understand it.
BioHacker: It’s really a learn-by-doing mindset.
Raymond McCauley: Yeah. Yeah. And love that. To skip ahead a little bit, because otherwise you’re going to hear me meander about being a six year old. Whenever I went to do my first undergraduate school, I wanted badly to be an astronaut.
Raymond McCauley: And my approach to the idea of being an astronaut was not, you know, I started off in aerospace engineering and then I realized pretty quickly, it’s like, no, no, no, I don’t want to build rockets and planes. And I don’t care about the theory of aerospace.
BioHacker: You want to go for a ride!
Raymond McCauley: Exactly. And I had no control over who gets to go for a ride. So if I want to go for a ride, the people who are gonna send people, what would they look for? Would look for somebody who was a hands-on experimentalist, who could get along with everybody and kind of follow orders, but do a lot of different things.
Raymond McCauley: To me, that is the sort of uber hacker archetype. And so fairly quickly, I decided, well, I would like to be a doctor, because if you’re a doctor and you can fly a plane and you’re some kind of engineer where you have designed and built and understand how to take it apart and put it together, then, man, you’re a triple threat. And then I think of myself as a quadruple threat because just number four, I’m just kind of threatening.
Raymond McCauley: So that’s fine. But so. So I got in and I was gonna be an electrical engineer.
Raymond McCauley: It’s like everything’s gonna run and need electricity and a lot of electromechanical pieces and electronics. But then that kind took me to digital. So I got fascinated with computer science. And that was, you know, really the takeoff point of the digital age.
Raymond McCauley: But my third major, I wanted it to be genetics and the whole story there about how I had a girlfriend who was premed pre that. And we were kind of challenging each other, whose courses are harder. And she’s like, oh, organic chemistry. You engineers could never do that. And I’m like, oh, digital logic. You you know, you just sit down and you try digital logic, see how you do. And so we switched courses one semester. She took digital logic and I took organic chemistry and she made an A and I made an A plus. And so I lorded it over her for the next three years.
Raymond McCauley: And of course, that led, among other things, to the breakup of that relationship. But it was fascinating to look at genetics as sort of a digital logic, like if X happens and Y happens and there’s sort of a logic gate, you know, what are the mechanisms underlying this? And we were just starting to tease that out. And molecular biology became this way to look at basically it’s like having a really great chip and you’ve got the access to some of the inputs and outputs and you’ve got to guess what’s going on. And so you kind of do these experiments almost by remote control on this little tiny level. I can, you know, influence this and this or set up a system where only these things are happening. And again, looking at it as an experimentalist, looking at it as an engineer and a tinker, and that became really informative. A whole world view.
BioHacker: Wow. So when you were a child, you were curious about exploring different questions and tinkering and doing things. But then when you when you got older, you were sort of inspired by this idea becoming an astronaut. That was really kind of a driving force. And you’re thinking only, what characteristics does the government want of an astronaut and how can I meet their expectations? So I have the best possible shot at getting it. And that’s led to the engineering and electrical engineering. It’s because everybody needs an electrical engineer on a on an airplane or on a on a spaceship. You get into the digital. But then when you had the girlfriend, she sort of influence you to check out the biology and you discovered you had a kind of a talent for and you can apply some of your building tinkering mindset to biology. And you felt like that was like a powerful skill.
Raymond McCauley: Yeah. I think so much of the last 30 years and in science and engineering have been people who were tinkering in digital logic and computer science. So that that was like the sort of obvious democratization of technology for so many people. Here are these things that came down in price so radically. And you were able to get cheap access to really high power stuff so that every generation looks likes such ridiculously high power. And you look back and things look like such ridiculously low power. And because of that, so many people who cut their teeth and being able to do their own experiments and build their own, you know, digital mechanisms and, you know, stay up late, hacking colonized all these other fields of intellectual endeavor. And I think it’s informed them mostly for good.
Raymond McCauley: Every once in a while, people get something wrong because they’re reasoning by analogy and the analogy breaks down. But but yeah, that was my thing, too. Instead of really trying to answer big questions about what is life and how does life continue? I was like, I want to answer questions like how can I be incredibly high rubble to, you know, be a person number 14 on the space station? And and I don’t know that that was bad. I think you scratch a lot of high tech projects today or biotech projects or anything, and you find this huge percentage of people who were inspired by that same thing.
BioHacker: How did that play out? You didn’t finish the story on the astronaut goal and did you go to the space station?
Raymond McCauley: I think you know the answer. Unfortunately, no, but I’m going to change that to not yet.
BioHacker: But you have some friends that did.
Raymond McCauley: I think you know the answer. Unfortunately, no, but I’m going to change that to not yet.
BioHacker: But you have some friends that did.
Raymond McCauley: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We’ve got some sort of think of colleagues. And I’ve got a few goals for myself personally for my kids going forward. So. So I did not make it yet to get to the space station. I did, I worked briefly for the astronaut program’s office at NASA. I interned at NASA and did some work there, including some stuff. Again, that kind of combined the the life sciences and the engineering piece at the four closed environment life support systems. And so being able to, you know, what does it look like to build something where you can regenerate oxygen and and have some plants and get rid of toxins in the air, etc.?
BioHacker: Life support systems on Mars type.
Raymond McCauley: Yeah. Yes. Or, you know, just in low earth orbit. If you’re going to have a moon base, you don’t want to, you know, keep throwing dehydrated meals up there. You don’t want to just depend on lithium hydroxide to filter some CO2 out and have more oxygen casters. You’d like to, you know, make your own stuff and recycle as much as you can. And so that was super interesting and informative. What happened was when the Challenger disaster happened, I think that that put some of my dreams on pause. I was just devastated. And some of the work that I wanted to do, it became harder and harder to do and harder for the space program to get funding. We didn’t have much of a private space effort at the time.
BioHacker: Was it 1985?
Raymond McCauley: Yeah. And seeing that and, you know, seeing sort of the decline in funding happen. And I was I was one of the guys who was active early on in the National Space Foundation in Students for the Exploration Development of Space, which I found out, you know, later on. That was Peter Diamandis.
Raymond McCauley: It’s the founder of and started and Jeff Bezos was involved in an international space university, which I didn’t attend, but was going to let me and I was putting myself through school, I didn’t have money to go. I had a girlfriend who went in Italy whenever they had it one year. And, you know, that was cool. Fascinating stuff. But after in the early nineties, I after doing some work at NASA and for Boeing, I then had to go find other, better paying things as government contracts dissolved and I kind of gave up on the whole “Well, I’m going to be an astronaut any time in the 90s at least”, and did some other good work. But I will tell you, one of my favorite things about being involved at Singularity U is, you know, they’re astronauts wandering around that you just get to talk to. It’s a hey, tell me about this or what’s going on. And so going out and being able to shoot model rockets with my kids, with people who’ve actually ridden rockets. And the kids are so blasé about her, like how has he flown in space? And I’ve tried to convince them to every time they see Elon Musk, they call him Uncle Elon. And they they finally ask me this if what do we call him, Uncle Elon. And I was like, because if he thinks, you know, that you’re that close to, maybe he’ll take you with him whenever he goes to Mars or and they’re like, oh, Uncle Elon. And they look up and Uncle Jeff, I’m like, yeah, Uncle Jeff for sure.
BioHacker: So, you know, you kind of dealt with the reality of the government defunding the space program and you realize like, well, it was my dream to become an astronaut, but it doesn’t seem like we’re kind of headed towards like this Star Trek vision that I kind of had. What was it that inspired you about becoming an astronaut? Like, what was your driving interests?
Raymond McCauley: I think a lot of it just that idea of being the Uber hacker of being an explorer, of doing something no one had ever done was very inspiring and some of the early books and things that I read, so I was a science fiction kid and I was the guy who would go to the library, any of those books that have that little sticker on the spine with a rocket ship reading, Robert Heinlein was formative. You know, and he was the guy who sort of to me first described the reality of what it would be like to live and work in space. You know, and it wasn’t just all steel, steely eyed, jutting jawed heroes. It was people who did things and were good at it, but sometimes failed. You know, when there was business and space and there were families and and housewives and house husbands in space and and different cultures. So that was a big deal. But honestly, one of the things that really appealed and again, this is growing up in the 70s and seeing the lunar missions and seeing Skylab after the Apollo, seeing astronauts bounce around in zero G, micro G is what we’re supposed to call it. Oh, my God. That just looked like the most fun that you could ever have. And so I wanted to be that kid who could live in their own micro g fun house. Well, you know, and I swear that kept me going for 20 years. It was like, what would it be like to get to live in low earth orbit or, you know, some sort of a space station at L5 and be able to bounce around in? And that would just be so much fun. And I like that better than the idea of exploring any planet or moon, you know, as being out in space itself.
BioHacker: So kind of a driver, it was just this idea of being in it like a funhouse, practically, like just doing flips and like drinking water when it’s kind of strange form in front of you. And like, yeah, the M&Ms and popping.
Raymond McCauley: All those things, being able to bounce off the walls and the ceiling. And I remember I loved swimming and swimming underwater and being able to go deeper and further. There was a pool that was four times Olympic size in Houston that we would go to every summer. And it had portions that were like 25, 30 feet deep. And so just this idea of being able to explore a space that big but not have trouble breathing. And so that led me partly to space and space led me to this idea of scuba would be practice for it. And so I became an avid scuba diver. And Arthur C. Clarke, you know, that was one of his things, too. And reading about his idea, the expiration of space and also reading about, you know, being underwater, being the next best thing. So all those things sort of combined. Along the way I picked up some of the pieces about the practicality of having a space faring civilization, how good that would be. And that, you know, gave me more practical goals other than being able to turn quadruples some results. So but the whole thing, I think comes together. I think people sometimes will look at the big heroic picture and say, oh, I want to do it to save the environment on Earth. It’s like I want to do it because it would be so much fun to be able to turn flips in micro G.
BioHacker: Yeah, it’s almost like a childlike sort of curiosity about the world in your body in like we’re being a fun environment.
Raymond McCauley: Yeah. And doesn’t the things that lead us someplace and then we find other reasons to stay there. Right. As as adults are responsible creatures or worse, sometimes not.
BioHacker: So it might be that my father had like an interests in space faring when he was a kid and he was inspired by Star Trek and this idea of like being a captain of a ship and like exploring new territory. But for you, it seems like it’s almost like just the physical presence and the enjoyment you’d have like in that playground.
Raymond McCauley: Trying to viscerally imagine myself there The fear that I have is that whenever I finally do get to experience micro-G, that I’ll just be sick the whole time. Or, you know, it may be just from the first day and a half, but it sounds like there are some some drawbacks. Short and medium and long term to being in in microgravity. And I’m hoping to. Hope. Hopefully it will be a fun, good experience. We’ll see.
BioHacker: What do you think about some of the recent, like, industrial efforts towards space, like Naveen Jain’s Moon Express, where I heard him speak recently and he talks about the moon as the eighth continent and that it’s like a valuable resource we should tap. Like, for example, the presence of Helium 3 and apparently with Helium 3, you can do fusion on clean fusion that’s not producing radioactive toxic, toxic waste.
Raymond McCauley: Drive the whole energy economy right there. Yeah, I that’s. I like the idea of manufacturing in space, having an industrial base. And it’s been so thrilling to watch space X and even like some of the old players. But in United Launch Alliance it’d been thrilling to watch Made in Space. You know, going where the first 3D printing in space, but now working on large structures and working on manufacturing of these perfect crystals that you would only be able to do in a micro-g environment where you don’t have convection working the same way on materials. So being able to do fiber optic cables, that would be 10, 100 times better. And some of that goes right back. Remember, I have the paperback copy of G. Harry Stein’s Third Industrial Revolution, where he talks about space manufacturing and makes some of these same points in the 70s. So all of that, the ideas for asteroid mining, you know that there are trillions of dollars worth of rare earth materials. Yeah. And things like titanium and radium and all of the things that we are having some trouble like, you know, resource wars for uranium or water wars or something look like they may turn into some of these rare element wars. And that’ll be the source of new conflict. The elements that are going to go ahead and fuel electronics is going to fuel clean tech.
Raymond McCauley: Everything from solar panels and all I.D. to these high performance, low weight medals that you need for for wind energy that you could find those out. And just this idea of being able to take all of the eggs out of one basket for humanity, the whole thing is thrilling. So, yeah, I’m watching the commercialization pieces being able to have participated in a small way in some of the political pieces back in even the 80s and 90s where we were urging people to commercialize, you know, some of these government programs. That was great. And being able to participate in some way through Singularity University, some of the folks like Greg […] are such a great guy and has been right there for the whole thing, you know, longer than I have. And such an insider knowing what’s going on. Peter […], the whole group.
BioHacker: In Naveen Jain’s Moonshots book, he talked about this idea of applying genetic engineering technology to astronauts to make them stronger and dealing with the space environment. So, for example, he was talking about flying to Mars takes like six months or something and you’re dealing with a lot of radiation from the sun during that journey and it can be damaging to their DNA and body. So he was talking about wanting to use genetic engineering to like change the DNA of the astronauts to incorporate this extremophiles gene. That would these extremophiles thrive despite the presence of radiation and relatively corrosive elements?
Raymond McCauley: Even in an even larger sense than that, and I think that’s not a bad focus for a lot of us, but people don’t realize the colonization. The extension of technical civilization into space depends on kind of two technologies, right? The first one is how do you get things from the surface of the planet up into orbit and be able do it more and more cheaply because that’s such a gating factor. And so that’s rocketry or something fancier than rocketry. That’s a big deal.
BioHacker: An elevator to space. I remember Ralph Merkle talk about that. Like making an elevator to the space out of diamond. No machine.
Raymond McCauley: Which sounds ridiculous until you realize, you know, we kind of did the same thing with aluminum. Where was this incredibly rare element because of the processing? And now it’s this workaday thing that we just throw away and think about and it’s everywhere. Yeah, but being able to do some kind of carbon fiber or or Buckminster Fuller green based diamond, you know, Diamond Bond’s strength material and make an elevator, but all sorts of possibilities there. And that’s that’s technology number one. Technology number two is everything, biotechnology. And it’s the ability to create environments where you are generating the things of life, oxygen and food and water and being able to recycle it. And then, of course, that has great spinoff applications on Earth.
Raymond McCauley: It’s being able to protect against radiation so that once you get out of the magnetic bands on the Earth and you’re in orbit or in at a Lagrange point or on the surface of the moon or the surface of Mars or in transit, that you can go ahead and do that. And that’s going to involve everything from genetic engineering of people to genetic engineering of microbes to coming up with new materials that are better and better at radiation shielding to new methods to repair radiation damage to DNA. And again, spin offs on more terrestrial applications for protection against cancer, etc. Then that’s a whole thing.
Raymond McCauley: And then finally, being able to do what looks like synthetic biology, can you make use of materials instead of with a factory that you bring up piece by piece by the factory where you bring up a seed and grow it and use those materials to grow more and more things? I’m really excited about. Like I said that the Made in Space pieces where they’re saying, OK. What does it look like to have a 3D printer that’s not in a box, but extruded things from a box and you can make these larger and larger structures and then it get […]. This idea of so we know photovoltaics and solar is the way that we get a lot of energy in space. What we don’t know is how far can we take that process with a biological substrate, like if you can hack photosynthesis or hack creating some kind of really complicated material that acts as super high efficiency converter and superconductor and, you know, spans a lot of extremes in temperature and is self repairing. You know, these are all sort of properties of biological systems. So could we do that? And again, instead of print and stamp out solar cells. Could we grow them and that becomes another whole interesting piece. So, yeah, I think kind of one of the growth industries of the big space commercialization piece will be biotechnological, and not even getting into drugs and things that we could only manufacturing space, you know, not not not just manufacturing spin off things, but it will be this driving technology that that enables it.
BioHacker: I heard Craig Venter speak at Stanford about this idea of a biological or digital to biological converter where there would be a device where you could have information of biology like the genome and and somehow it would convert it into like a and boot up a sort of a life form or something biological. On the other end. But then applying that to space. So, for example, sending some kind of like sensor over to Mars looking for like alien DNA and then sort of like electrically like sending it back to the earth and and sort of printing out whatever was found, if it if it would be found or the opposite of it, or like TerraForm Colonize Mars and sort of send the DNA and biological instructions over there to be sort of printed out in some ways.
Raymond McCauley: Yeah, I think Craig’s kind of remote DNA reader/writer idea is kind of a fun thought experiment. You know, if he wanted to send things and not contaminate or or you wanted to isolate and do an experiment far away from your home planet, what would that look like? And that’s not a bad thing. But that idea of terraforming really become sort of the ultimate extension of engineering on a geo scale or, you know, whatever planet you care to name. And being able to instead of having to kind of create all the pieces in a linear way, do it exponentially because your pieces are growing, your new pieces become super interesting. And the idea really like I think the ultimate use for something as weird and wild as this DNA reader, writer in any kind of an interplanetary sense is really the idea that we’re not going to send something that looks like a moon capsule or a generation ship to another star. The power consumption of that, whenever you really look at that without some kind of crazy physics shortcut is ridiculous. But the idea that you could go ahead and send something as big as a soda can. That’s got the DNA of a bunch of colonists on it and be able to boot up literally human life itself and a civilization, a technical civilization that becomes interesting and weird in a whole new sense. I really do think at some point we will be sending at least synthetic biological constructs and maybe people are the precursors of people out that way and going ahead and founding new civilizations interstellar. But we’ll see.
BioHacker: Want to shift topics to BioCurious. Could you tell me the story of how you you founded BioCurious and how you’ve seen seen it evolve?
Raymond McCauley: Sure. Sure. [BioCurious was] co-founded because there were six really passionate, dedicated people involved in that.
BioHacker: Were your co-founders from SU?
Raymond McCauley: No, so it’s an interesting group of people and super long story. But let me do the short version. This was something happening in the aughts, you know, around the 2006 timeframe where I guess I got into it because I was an inventor of some different pieces of biotechnology that I was helping to commercialize. And I realized there was so much that I wanted to do that I needed the resources of a full academic lab.
Raymond McCauley: But I didn’t want to do it academically. I didn’t want to do it as part of a thesis project or a degree. And so I was working in my garage. And as I was doing more and more that and kind of reaching out for help or buying stuff I needed on Craigslist because, you know, I’d gotten used to doing dumpster diving back when I was a kid to get electronic stuff that I needed. Being able to do dumpster diving in the Bay Area, you get some really great high tech and now biotech. And I was looking for cheap ways to be able to do some of the PCR that I need to do. Polymerase chain reaction, amplifying DNA. And met other people who were trying to buy the same things on Craigslist that were, you know, were in distress auctions from these companies that were going belly up and actually met these roommates living together, not romantically involved, who were doing something over here in Mountain View, where they had founded together a company where they were trying out a new cancer therapeutic. They were basically looking like if you can breed a horse to run faster, couldn’t you breed a white blood cell to attack cancer better? That’s the shortcut of what they were doing. And in doing that, they were they had turned their garage into a tissue laboratory, like a cellular characterization laboratory, where they could do a whole lot of this work. And it was so funny, they were living in a duplex and the young woman who was doing a lot of this was like what her dream was to open this up to more and more people, because, you know, for her, the social aspect of having people involved and they were sourcing equipment and working on some of the science was a big deal. And I was working at Illumina at the time. And on DNA sequencing. Yeah, yeah. We were just getting started. We had just been acquired by Illumina and we were. Trying to get that whole process working right and seeing how hard it worked out that a commercial lab and how much time and money it took and the investment and just slowed things down. And so I was really loving how they were kind of cutting corners, not in a safety way, but in a very low cost way. Yeah, absolutely.
BioHacker: And like the hacker mindset of like 80-20, like it’s it’s good enough to move on and learn and build on top of that.
Raymond McCauley: And that was that was Eri Gentry over at her duplex. And so I remember being in her backyard and she’s like, oh, we’re going to take this boring and maybe we’ll put, you know, all of these cell culture pieces of equipment in here. And then we started having these meetings where we would have people show up at my house or her house or different people’s houses who had things in their garage labs. And we would meet and talk about things you could do. Usually there was like some kind of unifying experiment. Somebody would give a lecture, but we would have something like what would be the easiest way to replace a liquid nitrogen level freezer, you know, for cheap. And so we would brainstorm things. And some of it was this engineering where you just hack and try things or how, you know, what companies can we order things from where they won’t give us a hard time because it’s a residential address. You know, how can we hack our way around outsourcing some of the the things we need to do and about that time on that. Josh Perfetto, who had been working on an early version of open PCR creating a PCR machine that was like a tenth one hundredth the cost of some of the ones that were commercially open as an open source.
BioHacker: Yeah, he like the design as public.
Raymond McCauley: They they they open sourced the hardware on it. So open hardware. And the idea was they could come up with the cheapest possible thing and you could go ahead and get the parts for it. You could order it from them on their website and they would send it to you completely made. You could order the parts and you would assemble it yourself, which is what most people did. Or you could just download the schematics and, you know, use a CNC Cutter to cut it out of plywood and sheet metal. And they had. Here’s their parts list of things you could get commercially in this. You would send off and they would make the little heating block in China and all the stuff. And then people started improving on it. So they had an up and PCR 2 0 and 3. And now Josh has got a company called Chai Biotechnologies where he does a really nice advanced QPCR that is really kind of better and cheaper than anything that’s available commercially other than through him. And and a couple of other characters. So we had two economists who were working on it, including Kristina Hathaway, who I’d collaborated with on our paper and on a couple of different things. She had hired me for a job and then we did my very favorite biological experiment ever. We had twins together.
Raymond McCauley: And so that wasn’t bad. She was one of the the co-founders as well. But we had this this interesting group of folks put together and kind of working on some of the things as in a scattered way. And then we had this one get together was like, what would it be like to go ahead and have a space where people could do all this work instead of this sort of floating rave where we go to different people’s houses and we do it, you know, every weekend, every other weekend. We did just have like a lab. And then it was like what wanted that lab was even like in a retail space out on a main street with big glass windows where people could look in and see what you’re doing and you could show it off because we were all kind of like early digital age, early biotech age. We were all really enthusiastic about the possibilities for this and the possibilities of collapsing the price so that more and more people could enter into this as students or inventors or activists or artists and be able to do all these different things.
BioHacker: The price and also the awareness that it’s possible. You put visibility on these scientists so they’re not closing in the lab like almost like a priesthood where you don’t really know what they’re doing. But instead, it’s like, how are you helping in the community.
Raymond McCauley: Initiated in the priesthood and you have to learn a certain way and it takes forever. And it’s sort of this very inefficient one on one transfer of knowledge, which one on one can be great. And it can also be very limiting. Right. And so we’re like, well, what if there’s a video that shows you how to do this? And what if there’s a person who’s available who can help you with this piece? And what if, you know, we have some bit by bit, here’s how to get started. Instructions on a couple of like the first time, use a pipetter, try it this way and do these things. And here’s a little pipetter challenge that to make sure you measure the right stuff. And that’s like a really kind of lame basic example. But it was the same thing to where we were looking at and sort of this theme of what does it look like for biology to become an engineering discipline where people are not just being observational, but they’re making changes and trying things. And so there was this this this big like, wow, what would it be like? And so right at the time when we were making our breakthroughs in aluminum DNA sequencing, right at the time when we were getting started with Singularity University, that was when this group we said, let’s put on a Kickstarter project, let’s raise money and see if we can actually do this.
Raymond McCauley: We’ll rent a commercial space and make it open to people. And we were so naive about so many pieces of it. We had what was the largest Kickstarter project, the most money raised in the history of Kickstarter up into that point, which to give you an idea how early this was, it was thirty two thousand dollars, I believe. But at the time people like, wow, that’s blown away. Anything we’ve ever done before. We had people from different places in the world who were never going to be here donating like a thousand dollars for a lifetime membership. And this thing that we thought maybe we would run out of somebody’s garage. We were naive about. That was part of the Kickstarter too. Yeah. To to go ahead. We saw the money was coming in through the Kickstarter. It was our Kickstarter in the end, some donations that people made and we started putting together donated equipment. And then for the first year after we had actually got the money, we put it in an account. We would come over to my house here and sit around this dining room table and the six of us would say, okay, what do we need to do? What are the the federal, state and local regulations? What are the safety things that we need to put in place? Well, the equipment that we need. How are we going to continue to have funds to have this be ongoing? What are the pieces going to cost? Kristina was probably the most professional and least wooly out of all of us. And so she was sort of our speaker to real estate agents. And we went through three different almost leases where people just were like, you know, they would say, you’re going to do what? And are you sure this isn’t a drug operation or what? Bioterrorism. Yeah. I mean, people would have had questions like, you know, why?
BioHacker: Or someone’s gonna kill themselves, like experimenting on themselves?
Raymond McCauley: The whole thing. I mean, all those questions were asked. And the biggest one was, has anybody ever done this before? Can you point to an example where this hasn’t gone wrong? And we’re like, well, we can’t point to one where it has gone wrong. And we got turned down a lot of different places, but finally found a space in Sunnyvale where they would rent to us and the rent was decent. It turned out the address was in the absolute geographic center of Silicon Valley, which I thought was so much fun because this was sort of our new Silicon Valley. The new thing to be founded in a garage. And we opened the doors up on that and I think 2008, might have been 2007. We had made our own lab tables out of plywood and fence posts and we had gone ahead and people had donated so much equipment and half of it worked and we were fixing the other half. We’d had decided that we weren’t going to be one of these things where you had to have a key to get in or you had to make an appointment. We were gonna be open from 10 a.m. to 10 pm seven days a week. And in fact, those hours, I think are still maintained today. It’s gone on to two locations. I was just over at that new location in Santa Clara this last week to take a couple of donations by.
BioHacker: Because like computer hackers, they tend to stay up late at night coding and things. So are biological hackers doing this sort of things, too?
Raymond McCauley: Yeah. Yeah. And there are people who have keys who have earned the right to enter the lab and, you know, kind of both caretakers and users or clients. And they do work at all hours. But part of it was just this open access idea. We didn’t want this to be something where you had to have an appointment and you had to have a bunch of forethought
BioHacker: Whenever you’re inspired, you can just go there and do it. It’s accessible.
Raymond McCauley: Exactly. Exactly. And we ended up not doing kind of obviously a retail storefront. Nobody had had an idea exactly how expensive that would be. But we did as part of this open access and transparency thing. We carried that all through the design of the organization, the way the lab was set up. The way things were done. And it’s still that way to this day. So as an example, so the most labs to be considered a biosafety level 1 lab, you have to have your doors closed and, you know, access restricted. So we didn’t want to do that. What we wanted instead of things to be behind a wall and a closed door or even a window that you could look through and press your nose up against on one side. We wanted people to be able to be in one side of the lab where maybe they hadn’t passed the safety test and training, where they could get in and handle equipment and do things on the other side, but they could see what’s going on. So we put a big line of blue tape on the floor and there was just this little poster board that was like, don’t step across the line unless you know what you’re doing. And, you know, we kind of evolved that as we went.
Raymond McCauley: And so you’d be on one side where you could eat and talk and handle things and go to class. And five year olds are running around. And on the other side, it’s more the restricted use and you have to know what you’re doing and wear gloves to do certain things and dispose of waste a certain way and know how to do a cleanup of the spill and avoid contamination. Everybody who was working in the lab. Again, this was another thing that you go in a lab that is like in an academic setting, multiple people use it. They store all their stuff and they always have trouble finding stuff that they need because somebody has used it or it’s in a box somewhere. It’s on some shelf. So we took kind of and this is, you know, a lesson that I’ve learned from moving around as a graduate student. You never get any kind of storage that’s not transparent. So you get these big transparent plastic bins. And if you have to keep something in a box, that’s what you put it in. If you have to keep something, you put it on a shelf with a label facing outward. You have glass and fine if there’s an earthquake risk of something falling off. But everything is visible and seeable and transparent. And you don’t worry about somebody working on site, literally, literally transparent, literally. I like taking transparency to a literal physical level. And so so the whole thing was architected with this transparency thing.
Raymond McCauley: And then I appointed myself as chief architect. That was my big thing. We had a two or three other CEOs. We had different people who were chair of the board and did things. But my thing was chief architect and I’d like enforce this whole event. We will not build a wall. We will not have a barrier. Will have a piece of blue tape that you can go across willfully. But when you know what you’re doing, we will have all of our stuff on display. If people have private projects, they will still be in these transparent bins. So it’s not like somebody is going to come and work on some big secret thing. We ended up evolving that because, you know, whenever you have commercial products, some of that needs to be private. And so if we were doing it again today, kinda like two houses of Congress, I would have the totally public, totally transparent side, and I would have the private, you know, restricted access side. And they do a little bit of that. Now, there are rooms that are rented out at the new BioCurious, but still members use the same standard plastic bin. That we had them do for storage, and I just it’s fantastic to see how it’s come.
Raymond McCauley: We also found and so I was the guy who was the first person on the desk. We had I had been able to exit from from Illumina. We were starting up the stuff at Singularity University. And so I didn’t have to actually be anywhere, any given time. So three days a week, I would go at 10 a.m. and open up, BioCurious and be the guy sitting by the desk. And then we would train volunteers. And between Kristina and I, we trained all the volunteers for the first, I think, five years that it was open. So we knew every single person who was working.
BioHacker: So you were kind of the receptionists?
Raymond McCauley: Yeah. Absolutely. Because you know what better way to learn? The people who want to come in on me is that they’d be the first person that they talked to. And what better way to the few rules that we really did want to have and enforce? What better way to enforce them and set that culture? And so I was the person at the front desk. And, you know, there were days when literally no one would open the door. And there were days whenever we had, you know, two or three visitors or two or three people working on an experimental demonstration, a prototype, where they only have to be in a couple of times a week to, you know, take a reading or, you know, move something from an incubator. And so it was a little lonely. I always would joke that there were tumbleweeds going through. And then some TV crew would say, hey, we heard about this. We want to come and film people in action. Can we drop by the day? I’m like, oh, today’s bad. It’s so busy come tomorrow. And then I would phone twelve people and say, be here tomorrow and look busy and make it look cool. What was kind of funny that combined with an open access policy for like just that, a shared workspace where people could come and do some of their work and not in the lab, but just sitting around using our conference rooms and using some of the the audio visual equipment and that stuff, people started showing up and then it became a really busy space. And it’s where we grew out of the space. Within about three years, it was it was tight. And but but yeah, we faked it until we made it several times there for reporters and TV crews and and or investors would be like, could we hold an event at your space? And then they would they were doing it so they could look at some of the companies that were working on things.
Raymond McCauley: One of the early companies that came by Balaji Srinivasan, who at the time was sort of making a name for himself. He and his brother had founded a genetic testing company out of Stanford. And then he later on went on to be the CTO for Coinbase. He became one of the big movers in cryptocurrency and has gone on to do several other things. But he had come by to come to one of our events because we would have classes and lectures and things in the evenings especially. And he came by.
Raymond McCauley: And he was just so impressed with the people there. The quality people were amazing because they were thinkers and hackers and professional scientists and amateur scientists. But people would just get together and have these great conversations and put things like, you know, I’m working on this. Oh, here’s the better way to do it than what you’re thinking of. Oh, how do you know that? Oh, well, hey, would you would like to hire into my startup or well, no, but I would love to invest. And I mean, just the way things would build on each other and get better and better.
Raymond McCauley: He was there for a lecture that we had an idea kind of purposefully inviting them because I wanted him to see what was going on in his company, Counsyl was the genetic testing. And he goes, oh, my God, these are in exactly the kind of people we want to recruit and hire. What would it take for me to put up a banner, you know, that says jobs.counsyl.com? And I was like, oh, well, we actually have a sponsorship program in the back of my head. I’d had this whole thing. I wanted to be open for a year and prove that we weren’t going to kill anybody before we associated with any companies. But he was our first sponsor. We ended up having like six serious sponsors. Peter Teal Foundation came in and was one of our sponsors there with Lindy Fishburne being the person who sort of was the the great person facilitating that.
Raymond McCauley: Several different big biotech companies and big pharma companies ended up not just donating equipment or time or people to come teach classes, but ongoing like monthly donations for sometimes years at a time. People paid a little bit of a membership fee that was about a quarter of us. One of the things that I thought would be big turned out much bigger was education students coming, especially young kids. And we would have teachers, instructors say, I want to do a class on whatever. And we’re like, okay, what do you want to set the age limit? Like 18. And I remember just so many times talking about I’m like, don’t sit on the 18 set of it. You know, what’s the youngest? You would be comfortable. Oh, I wouldn’t want to deal with anybody other than 12 because they don’t they wouldn’t know what they’re doing. Like, you would be surprised if you will set it down at 5, I will show up or Kristina will show up. And we will make sure we help him with the kids. My kids at the time when we started it were five. Oh, good. And, you know, I wanted them to be able to come with me to see something that I wanted to see. And, you know, they might be off in the corner playing with blocks, but they actually did their first hands-on genetic engineering experiment at 5. And the first bacterial transformation and several other things. We ended up having classes specifically for kids. We had Saturday morning science, which was kind of a patterned after cartoons that used to be big on morning. And we did a Friday night science camp. So parents would drop the kids off for three hours, go on a movie date and come back and pick them up.
Raymond McCauley: Saturday morning was a little more directed where it was less like fun make slime stuff. It was more specific experiments. We had so many kids come through that in graduate and events a real interest and come up with amazing science fair projects. So that whole experience was transformational for me to see what was possible. We also saw this real uptick in what I call now nontraditional biotech. So biotech, it’s not about a therapeutic or a diagnostic or anything clinical, but is about consumer products and goods. It’s about somebody entering the field kind of from the side and doing something. So it tends to be below a certain amount of regulatory scrutiny. It’s something where people haven’t thought about applying biotech before. We’ve had hundreds of millions of dollars, I could give you some of the actual figures of companies that started at BioCurious getting their follow on funding, including I took several classes of Singularity University GSP students through. So how was that was their first exposure? We had companies formed there like Miraculous. They did their first proof of concept for our micro RNA diagnostic assay at BioCurious. We’ve had companies that have gone public that started that BioCurious and they don’t always want me to mention their names because they’re not always enthusiastic about their scruffy bio hacker roots. But tremendous things and that has influenced me. So like a lot of what I do now is do the advising and investing to these small companies after seeing different ways they can get started. I just met a guy a couple of nights ago at BioCurious who is working on attaching magnetic particles to ion channels in the brain.
Raymond McCauley: And then being able to influence a for a neuro like caption that the computer. Yeah. Yeah. So basically brain computer interface. But he’s doing like these very foundational like without surgery. Yeah. Totally noninvasively. And you know, I was like how would you get these across the brain blood brain interface. I don’t know. That’s the fun part. You know, and it’s the kind of thing that somebody would have trouble doing in an academic lab without a huge amount of support, would not be able even start doing commercially without having being able to answer a whole lot of questions. And he’s able to go ahead and do this. He’s like, this is something that I just thought of 10 years ago and I’ve always wanted to do it. And now I can mess around. He was up there late one night whenever I was up there.
BioHacker: What were the enabling conditions that allowed him to feel like you would be able to push ahead with that project? Well, like the equipment, special equipment that they’re just the community people supporting him. What was holding him back before?
Raymond McCauley: You know, we didn’t get into it, but it’s kind of a common refrain for a lot of people who’d like this. And so everybody thinks it’s those two things. And I think that’s right. But I think it’s the equipment first. And that was my thing, too. First it was if you’re going to do something that takes some high capital cost equipment, you’ve got to raise the capital. And anybody who’s doing a biotech startup has got to raise like two million dollars worth of stuff.
Raymond McCauley: And that’s true, and it’s nice to be able to come in and just to access the equipment. But sometimes it’s like last generations equipment. It’s a little scruffy. You know, there’s some some downsides. The environment tends to be, with any shared environment sometimes, you know, the last person who use it doesn’t clean up right. Which can be a real problem with biology-based experiments. But people find ways to do it and make it work. But what the real enabling factor is that I hadn’t anticipated is the community. It’s having a group of people who have such deep knowledge of different pockets of the field, and he was this particular guy I was talking to me about physicists. There’s a couple of people who are physicists who are a bio physicist and are a particle physicist to come and hang out, do things. And he was talking to them about how to concentrate and do things with magnetic fields, because I don’t know how I would’ve found the right people if I were trying to hire that or if I were consulting or working on this as an academic project, maybe I could wander across campus. But he goes here, people who are just for the love of it are so happy to share their expertise and help me try things. And then I’ll I’ll talk to somebody and maybe 2 weeks later, somebody send me a paper they saw and it helps me leapfrog ahead years and years. But the big thing again is this idea of being able to tinker. It’s in treating it as an engineering discipline. And that goes all the way up and down the scale from people, inventors or people trying to start companies.
BioHacker: With low risk in terms of going to cost a lot. Just a bit of time. And then if the people are there, there’s other people of high skills that are concentrated in that space and can leverage their knowledge and skills without having to pay a lot to consultants.
Raymond McCauley: And it’s a big deal. And just that switch in orientation of, you know, frame of mind and scene, kids encounter biology for the first time, not as an observational thing they’re reading about in the book, but as a very hands on thing where they’re like, look what I did, you know. And here are the pieces I can take home with me on the computer or, you know, the results of an experiment or something. And that really results in a huge shift in thinking.
BioHacker: Give the children like early success experiences where they feel like I can do it like the higher self efficacy.
Raymond McCauley: Yeah, yeah. It’s you know, I can have an idea and it’s like I don’t have to study for 20 years to have a new idea. I can go and try it and try it. And then I’d be a be experimental, be a prototype. And also, frankly, to have the early failure. So, you know, more than I think any other science, because there’s so many unconstrained variables in biology, that crap fails half the time, more than half the time and actually have a failure and work through it. That was one of the things we discovered as we were trying to train teachers more and more.
Raymond McCauley: A teacher wants to really be the best authority in front of their class of students, of kids and say, ah, here’s this thing. And it worked perfectly and they’ve all the answers. Yeah. And you know, and I get that. It’s like you don’t want a demo and have a bad demo. And so teachers are kind of having to demo every day. And so they pick really slick demos that are gonna work. But there’s something to being able to get up and say, here’s the thing and we tried it and it failed magnificently. Why did it fail? What did we do wrong? What can we do? Let’s try it again and do this other thing. Did it still fail? And you don’t want to have failure after failure, obviously. But being able to troubleshoot a process that is imperfect really I think is sort of the source of all wisdom and advancement. And so teaching kids not here’s the super easy kitchen experiment we can do that will be beautiful every time. Here’s the thing that it’s going to fail some the time and you kind of get used to it and you got to work together.
BioHacker: Or the guy who had the idea for 10 years about the brain machine interface. He didn’t have the resources to give it a good shot to see if it works. And if it’s a fail, then cool. Like he can close the door on that and we will move on to think about other things.
Raymond McCauley: Absolutely. Oh, you know, anybody who. Like, you know, this is Silicon Valley. If we were in Hollywood, everybody would have a script or want to be an actor. But here everybody’s got a startup or an invention. And so this idea in biotech, you’ve got a thing that you want to do and try instead of like go raise two million dollars and then the prototype doesn’t work. It’s like go, don’t raise too many dollars, get a membership at a bio hacker space and try it out. And if the prototype doesn’t work, you’ve kept your day job. You know, you just you’re like but probably you find a way to make it work or something that works better, something you’re more interested in. That’s been one of the things where I’ve been super interested that, again, it’s not just students and not just inventors slash entrepreneurs. We’ve seen the evolution. This was totally not anticipated by me and by anybody that I know. The evolution of community projects, people who are like, I’m interested in bio printing. I’m interested in quantitative self and measuring something about my physiology, my longevity. I’m interested in, you know, some other just kind of weird corner edge case.
Raymond McCauley: So I’m going to be here every Tuesday night at 7:00. Anybody who wants to join me, let’s bring journal articles or do a thing or let’s pick an experiment. We’ll try to do the simplest MVP, you know, minimum viable product experiment we can do.
Raymond McCauley: And some of that stuff has turned into amazing projects where they’re doing big deal work and then they’ve spun companies out of it. Some of it hasn’t, but it’s just been incredibly fulfilling for the people doing it with like a perverse lack of organization, whether they’re in some ways like let’s put a leader in and guys like, no, let’s not. Let’s go and have a more regular schedule now. You know, every other Thursday’s fine. Maybe that. And and it kind of trucks along and people get things done and it fulfills a need even without necessarily having like a great commercial or academic success. Although there’ve been both their papers published. There are companies formed. There are fortunes sometimes lost and I think more often made. So I’d really love it as a model for innovation, for startups, for science.
BioHacker: Yeah, the other community aspect is really powerful. That’s been one of my favorite things about Singularity University. It’s been feeling like I’m part of a community of people who can have the same vision I have of the future and has creative ideas. I can bounce ideas off them, and you’ve been the part of BioCurious community and Singularity University community.
Raymond McCauley: So I’ve gotten to bring those together too, which has made me really happy. The BioCurious bio hacker community, as far as you know, I think there’s like three kinds of bio hackers that people recognize now the bio hacker as sort of community lab scientist, person experimenter and sometimes self experimenter is a much more diverse, less lined up, more herd of cats community. But that’s not bad.
Raymond McCauley: I think that’s a strength and it’s a great diversity to get exposed to and to try things out with that community. And and that’s the thing, too. It’s evolved so much and so fast. The first summer we were open, we had people coming to BioCurious who were from all over the US and the world saying, we heard about it. We want to see how it’s working. You know, what classes are you doing? Can I teach a class? What would it take for me to be on the front desk, which made me so happy because I didn’t have to be there the whole three days anymore.
Raymond McCauley: Sometimes I would come to open it or to close it, but it became really interesting. People would come for a week or sometimes three months and do something and then go back to their home and found their own bio hacker space. Early on we had somebody who wanted to open up the San Diego branch of BioCurious and the founders, we were split. Some of the founders were like, Oh yeah, yeah, that’ll be great. Well, we’ll franchise, but you know, no money will change hands. And some of the rest of us were like somebody else using our name but not using our rules. Do we really want that? You know, to what extent is this something where the name and the brand is important to us? And so we made an early decision to say, no, no, don’t use the name. But do you know, here’s our playbook here. And, you know, here’s the here’s all the things we did right and wrong. And and here’s things we think will work in different aspects or sizes or communities. And so everyone has been an experiment. Everyone has done its own thing. There is this nice culture of sharing. There’s a community labs sort of jamboree that gets together at M.I.T. Media Lab once a year and in October. That’s been really fascinating to see for the last I think now four years, people come from all over the world to show off their best projects and brag, but also just to share and learn and see things. So it is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s it’s amazing. I got to say, though, BioCurious is still with maybe one or two exceptions, the most amazing lab with the most amazing people for it to still be open 12 hours a day. No appointment necessary, et cetera, et cetera. And for it to have the breadth of the community, the amazing amount of equipment, I was so blown away because I hadn’t been in in months and going to this last week.
Raymond McCauley: And almost no one else has anything like that. I like so IndieBio is an incubator in San Francisco that is, you know, got some good venture capital backing and they’ve graduated now. Now they’re on their tenth class and are funding these startups. That’s a fairly amazing place. But it’s not a it’s not a hackerspace effect. The the leader is more of an incubator. Yeah. And they will go to great pains, even though Ryan Bethencourt, who was the first organizer, but very much was, you know, paid homage to the bio hacking roots of the place. Jun Axup, who runs it now is like, no, no, no, no, we’re not bio hackers. We’re serious business people. And I’m like, oh, I don’t know that that’s mutually exclusive, but I still think of it as a hacker space and that people are coming to do nontraditional biotech. And some of the classes that they’re graduating, especially people in some of the diagnostic spaces and some of the consumer products and good spaces. That’s pretty impressive. You can make a case that Janssen labs out of Johnson and Johnson actually happened because BioCurious happened because the guy who founded Janssen Labs had visited by and said, why are we not doing this? And there’s a whole story about how his lawyers told him, maybe you guys can’t do this because of the liability and because we would need to take, you know, equity people. Yeah. And do all these things. And he’s like, let’s just not do it that way and win his own way and would have been in some trouble if it hadn’t been so successful. But it’s now adding billions of dollars to the JNJ bottom line. They’re located all over the world. And you know this way to interface new startups with big companies and use the big company expertise and weight and and gravitas and money and use the new startup energy and experimenting with new things. But also like, you know, what’s our first product gonna be? Well, we think it’s this and the big companies like, well, we’ll buy it if it’s that thing that rhymes with that. It’s amazing.
BioHacker: And then startups just need a little bit of data to prove that it works so that the big companies have confidence that this is something.
Raymond McCauley: So sometimes a little bit of data, sometimes a little bit of mentorship, sometimes just that first customer. But for the most part, Janssen Labs is still a thing where people can come. They don’t have to give up equity just like we did it at BioCurious, they don’t have to sign away anything. A lot of people will do. My understanding is these are right of first refusal deals now before they come. But a lot of it is Janssen Labs is just saying here’s some money for you to come and work here and us to share what we know. And hopefully it’s two ways and hopefully we can do something for each other. And more often than not, it has been.
BioHacker: So I’m curious, where have you seen this bio hacking kind of go wrong? Like, for example, I heard about a person. Aaron, let’s see here. Found in my notes. Aaron Traywick. I don’t know if you ever heard of him, but he performed an onstage public demonstration injecting himself with an untested experimental gene therapy. And then he later passed away in 2018 while in a sensory deprivation isolation tank, a floating pod. And then he was found drowned in the drug ketamine dissociative anesthetic in their system. So, yeah. What’s your reaction when you hear about things like that?
Raymond McCauley: Well, I think that there’ve been some some good and bad things that have happened. Right. And there are a number of folks that I would sort of class as the pioneers, sort of with the arrows in their backs who maybe have pushed it a little too far, too hard.
BioHacker: People on the cutting edge and sometimes they get cut, they’re bleeding.
Raymond McCauley: Yeah. And, you know, and I’m you know, I don’t think that that’s just like they they were out on the cutting edge and something happened. I think sometimes people push it too far in a bad way. I want to be clear, I’m a really big fan and a huge supporter of self-experimentation. I think a lot of advances have been made by technologists and especially people in biology and medicine who do experiment on themselves. But I think that there are good and bad ways to do it now. Aaron, to be really clear, I don’t think his gene therapy had anything to do with his death. I think he was kind of a fairly irresponsible individual. But that was an example of kind of the wrong way to do things. So there have been a few things like that. Here’s another thing than this there are a couple of people who do I think some really goofy demonstrations of things, especially with genetic engineering where self-administered that I don’t agree with and would never do. But kind of like the Supreme Court used to say, but I would also defend to my death their right to do it. I think that there should be sort of a genetic self-expression, freedom, and that is more important than the good of that is better.
Raymond McCauley: First, do no harm, to harm no fertile life, which is runs against the way genetics was born in the eugenics movement in the early 20th century. You know, when people were forcibly sterilized, ridiculous things were done. So the idea of harming fertile life is a big deal. To be careful about environmental consequences, to go ahead and have multiple safeguards. I would actually hazard a guess that BioCurious is much more safe environment with many more safeguards than the average academic lab that operates at the same level. In fact, not more than the average, more than the top ninetieth percentile because we really wanted to do it right. Now people who are doing things on their kitchen counters and not cleaning them. No. So there are ways to do that wrong. I like the idea of model rocketry whenever that started out. And if you’ve ever seen the October Sky, Homer Hickson wrote the great book and then they did the movie. So here these amateur rocketeers launching rockets and then, you know, there’s a fire and they’re blamed for burning down structure and stuff. It’s like, yeah. Turned out now they were actually being very careful. And we ended up at the beginning of the 20th century with a model of rocketry association that actually had people take a pledge and enact certain safety things to do it right. They actually, because you’re dealing with explosives, they manufactured some of that or they started a company that manufactured it and would go ahead and sell it to the responsible rocketeers who were working on things experimentally or as a hobby. So looking at some of that same stuff, George Church is a prominent biologist at Harvard Medical School, and he talks about what would it be like to have a driver’s license for synthetic biology? Like what are the basics that you would need to learn that it’s probably not something you want to just throw open to anybody and say have at it. And I think that that’s not bad as a minimal restriction. You know, what would be the basic things that you would do?
Raymond McCauley: I can give you a, there are all sorts of examples of things we had where people, you know, argued one way or another on the safety rules that it should be much more permissive or much more restrictive. We actually at one point we’re being sued by two different organizations who wanted us to release and not release a genetically engineered organism that was made at BioCurious. And, you know, being on both sides that at once is tough. But you really realize it’s it’s in some ways sort of a culture war and it’s sort of at the forefront of what we’re gonna be able to do this century. And of course, it matters. Of course, people care about it partially. Of course, it’s misunderstood. Of course, I hope the of course here is not. And of course, better we dodged the bullet of it’ll be misused.
Raymond McCauley: And I think that it’s possible by having more people working on it and understanding it to dodge that piece of it being misused. That’s not a foregone conclusion.
BioHacker: What is your approach on bio hacking yourself like your own health? Like when you take a drug or like do something medically related, do you check it by a doctor for sort? Or do you kind of just try a little bit on yourself to see what it would do or what’s kind of your mindset on kind of hacking your own health and biology?
Raymond McCauley: It’s funny in some ways, I’m very conservative and very liberal on that. At the same time, I have friends who are much more permissive or freewheeling on the things that they will do. In fact, we know more and more we’re seeing these longevity hackers and the idea that the old gold standard for science, which is don’t do anything unless it’s been proven scientifically and to prove it scientifically, you do a case control study where it’s double blinded and people don’t know which group they’re in, and then you wait out to see the result of the experiment in this case, who’s going to live longer?
Raymond McCauley: That just doesn’t really work. You know, I mean, it works, but it doesn’t work for me. I don’t want to wait 60 years after I’m dead to know what’s going to work. And so I tend to like things that do have that burden of proof from a human trial. But I think that because we’re understanding biology more as an informational science, we’re able to move the clinical endpoints of the study a little further upwards, not what is the age of an organism at time of death and more, you know. What are some of the conditions that apply. What are some of the metabolite levels and can we use that as a surrogate for good health or aging well in place? I used to do a lot like work, so in some of our citizen science work that kind of came out around the time that we were doing BioCurious Company, I started one with a guy, Greg Biggers, called Genomera. We were talking about doing crowd sourced clinical trials.
Raymond McCauley: This idea that you can try something, an intervention, you know, anything from a device or a diagnostic or an over-the-counter remedy or a prescription drug and measure certain things and not just have an anecdotal story like, oh, I think that worked well. But hey, let me see what I can measure and see what we can actually show from a plasma level, you know, a metabolic effect. Biomarkers. Yeah, exactly. Like, you know what? What is a biomarker and a biomarker’s a temperature? It can even be, you know, something is subjective as mood compiled over days and weeks. But but I like plasma levels better than I like mood. But let’s let’s come up with some way to measure it and see how it works.
Raymond McCauley: We did wash out studies like I would try a new over-the-counter nutraceutical and I would make sure I wasn’t taking anything else for two weeks. And then I would in measure my base levels of whatever I was looking at. And then I would use this nutraceutical and measure my base levels. And we had several people who were interested in seeing if a particular thing would work and we would get them to all do these things together. We did some of the first papers on participative medicine along those lines.
BioHacker: So what I’m kind of hearing is like when you’re when you’re thinking about biohacking yourself and improving your own longevity and health, you’re really concentrating, especially in measuring like how can I measure biomarkers that would indicate something is helping me? And you try not to be reckless like you try to take take a medicine or do something yourself and there’s already evidence supporting that it works. But but yet you’re right. Like you, you’re the one that cares the most about your own health. Like and you’re in the kind of the medical system and the US places like really dysfunctional. And so you’re kind of working within that context.
Raymond McCauley: Having to work within a system and yeah, you know, us is a strange animal compared to the rest of the world. And people who all over the world who are medical practitioners tend to be fairly conservative about what their standards of care are. So trying something new is something different. One of my big things is like so many people will I heard so-and-so say that this work, so I’m going to try it. It’s like, did you do some base measurements before? Do you think you even need, you know, something? Well, sleep is important and I sure could get some better sleep. So I’m going to do this sleep intervention. And it’s just all those anecdotal stories where somebody hears it, word of mouth and they get excited about it. I get the excitement. I share that when somebody says, but it’s like the plural of anecdote is not statistics. The plural of anecdote is not proof. It is a bunch of stories that you’ve heard. So coming up with a way to even just so you know yourself, we’re our own best measures and observers of our own health were also the best at fooling ourselves about what works and doesn’t work. And so having some objective, not subjective way to evaluate things I think is so important. Now, that said, you could spend all of your time and all of your life doing these wash out studies on yourself and it’s not necessarily indicative. So I think there’s two things going forward. Like the idea of being able to personally try something or a combination of things and then see if you’re getting a good result and measure that objectively. And the idea of being able to participate more and more in these crowdsourced clinical trials, people who are trying something together because we can now sort of ubiquitously compile data and measure things, whether you’re taking a blood test or you’re wearing a Fitbit, right? Or an Oura ring is sort of the new fun little wearable. There you go, I got mine in the charger. So I like that I think that we’re all going to end up being in like dozens of clinical trials transparently.
Raymond McCauley: Where are our information systems are keeping up with what we eat and how we sleep and what our quality of life is. But and I think that’s good. I think there’s this bugaboo about privacy. You know, people are worried about having a basically, the toilet caravan people are watching you and laughing.
Raymond McCauley: I sort of at one extreme, I get that. But at the same time, you know, am I really that worried about people knowing what I eat, what my diet is. Being sensitive to, different people having different levels of worry about, different levels of security and sharing is a big deal. So having control is a big deal. Ten years ago, I got my first Wi-Fi scale. And so you stand on it and it’ll report your weight. And one of the options was you could hook it up so it would tweet your weight out on Twitter and about four or five people in my life were just like, oh, my God, no.
Raymond McCauley: You know, I’m not going to get in the same room with that thing. And that was very instructive to me. Silicon Valley’s this culture of oversharing. And people who are like an in and out for medical stuff especially need to keep it. How close? The idea that people can be prejudice over. Discrimination. Yeah. Yeah. Somebody who’s got depression or somebody is HIV-positive or something. These are things that kinda traditionally we understand about keeping it close. And I think that’s going to change. I think people are gonna be more willing to share things about their medical history and their medical status. And I think we’re going to see less and less prejudice based on that. But we’ve got to ensure that that’s the world that we’re gonna be in, right?
BioHacker: Well, it will be like a top piece of advice you would give someone who wants to extend their life and health span and make it to 100?
Raymond McCauley: So that the things that come to mind immediately are fairly conservative. One is do all your basic medical maintenance stuff. Everybody always wants to find the magic pill. But you know, are you at a healthy weight? Do you have healthy habits with smoking and drinking and eating? And very few people can answer yes to those things. Are you exercising an appropriate amount? And if you’re not, you don’t have to wait to do other things. But you ought to be doing those in addition to doing, you know, the more biohack-y experiments. So I would say that’s one. Two do all your medical surveillance. Are you getting your once a year checkup or are you looking at your blood lipids? Are you doing the right things there? And then three. Don’t depend on anecdotal evidence, anything that you can take and see. From a small molecule drug to some other kind of intervention, what do human based studies show about it? And if you don’t have human based studies or even if you do and they’re really small, take it with a grain of salt. We have people spending lots of money on everything from these youthful blood transfusions and cord blood. But that said, there’s a new company that I’m working with that I’m going to do a donation to where they, it’s sort of the, I think, cord blood done right. They will go ahead in anticipation of cell therapies in future cell therapies. They will isolate either stem cells or t-cells from your blood and bank them. So if you ever need […] or there’s different cell therapies that are sort of coming down the pike that you’ve got now, you know, whatever your youngest blood is. I would rather have done it at 22, but I’ll do it at 52 and be pretty happy with it.
BioHacker: Wonderful. And what is your personal approach on the second of the diagnostics? Like, do you have a hospital locally here in Mountain View that you go to or do you do it do something crazy like go off to Berlin and do like a big health check?
Raymond McCauley: You know, that involves for me and I think that that’s really different depending on ability to pay. Especially in the US system. And if you’re in some other national system, they’re gonna do basics and not do good, crazy longevity stuff. For me, I actually have put together sort of a network of practitioners. So I do some basic stuff locally here in California and locally in Texas. And I’ve got doctors that I have directives of medical care that I keep with them about how I want to do things. And they understand me and am very open about, you know, my health and my status.
Raymond McCauley: And there’s certain things that there’s nothing that I won’t discuss with them, which I think is important to have that kind of relationship trust. And there’s some things where I’m like, if I want to keep something out of my records, I asked for that, which is another part of trust. I have a couple of people that I would consider longevity docs that I work with in New York and Colorado and I’m looking at adding more things on like that. But like my basics for weight loss, for making sure my blood lipids are good, my blood sugar is good. I can do that almost anywhere.
Raymond McCauley: And I don’t need to do a big fancy executive health thing. I’m also, you know, among other things, I’m a geneticist and so I can read my own gene chart and kind of do some interpretation about how I can make lifestyle changes that are appropriate for my known variance in my genes. I do that. I think it’s nice to have somebody who knows that to work with.
Raymond McCauley: If you’re trying to do anything very different, you know, out of the mainstream that the being able to run either a full genome sequence or a genotype, 23andme and be able to dove into that and pull out information. Super important for nutrition, super important for carrier status, for anticipating chronic disease risk and then designing a medical regimen around it. So I think that that’s you know, that’s that’s a level of expertise that you either have to have or have to find and cultivate.
BioHacker: Well, thanks Raymond! I think we can wrap up our conversation. I’m really grateful for your time. I’ve learned a whole lot and I appreciate your stories.
Raymond McCauley: Thanks for having us. And thanks for the good questions. I look forward to not hearing my own voice, but hearing what more people are doing. So thanks a bunch.
BioHacker: Well, there you have it. Raymond McCauley really enjoyed this conversation. And some of my takeaways from the talk were to pay careful attention to biomarkers for your body because that can be a source for learning. Thank you very much.