Austen Heinz

Standing on the shoulder of giants

I recently heard that Austen Heinz, the founder of Cambrian Genomics passed away. It feels so surreal, I had just heard his interview not too long ago in the two-part series on This Week In Startups. Jason asked about everything interesting and I really enjoyed listening to him. Being an academic in roughly the same area as Austen, I could feel his passion about the impact he wanted to create through his company. He was one of the few people who really wanted to have to change the outlook people have in understanding the practical implications of genome editing and synthetic biology. He worked on several “controversial” projects but in the end, they were really extensions of his passion to democratize access to DNA printing.

I had hoped that one day I would get a chance to meet him, but the chances of him coming to Orlando were probably very low. He got a jumpstart in the world of synthetic biology through iGEM like many of us and later on went to Seoul National University. He came back to the US and started Cambrian Genomics. He had always been a huge supporter of community events such as participating in Habitat for Humanity, and his Eagle Scout project. His company was making tremendous strides in the area of DNA printing and his ambitions for the company would be carried on by many others who have share his vision for their company. I generally don’t write about people passing away and so on because the events are generally covered very well in the press but this case was different because there wasn’t that much in the press, which motivated me to write about it.

So how should we honor him? For other students like me, try getting more into iGEM programs, if you don’t have one at your university, start one! On several occasions, Austen talked passionately about his experiences at iGEM shaping a lot of what he did and how he thinks. Another way is to focus on similar problems that Austen focused on, democratization of biotechnology and the access to biotechnology for other entrepreneurs and students. That was one of Austen’s main goal and he really strived to make it biotechnology generally accessible.

Anthony Porchai wrote that “One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.” And you certainly did that Austen, from one ambitious student to another: Thank you for all your work.