From Dance Clubs to Syn Bio: MIT’s Collins on Startups, Second Chances

James Collins | Via Xconomy | October 5, 2015

t happens over and over again with new science. A discovery prompts crazy hype and massive investment that the data aren’t ready to support. A crash ensues, backers lose millions, egos are bruised—yet the pioneers slowly trudge forward. They regroup, away from the limelight, and try to learn from failure.

When it comes to synthetic biology—a method of modifying the genes of living organisms to effectively change what they do—James Collins knows this story better than most. He’s an MIT professor who helped found the field nearly two decades ago. He’s seen the hype, when investors placed huge bets on startups aiming to produce clean energy on a large scale; the crash, when many of those companies were wiped out and scientists fled back to academia; and the pivot, when the surviving companies shifted their sights elsewhere.

“I think we’ve recovered now, as a field,” he says.

Gone are the days when a bevy of high-profile startups like Sapphire Energy, Solazyme, and J. Craig Venter’s LS9 offered hopes of renewable, eco-friendly fuels made by engineered algae. In their wake is diversification: Sapphire, for instance, has made a strategic pivot into things like food additives, cosmetics, and nutraceuticals. But from Collins’s vantage point, something else has happened. The “clinical space,” he says, has become a dominant focus for synthetic biologists—meaning tools that could be used for medical research, diagnostics, or even “living” therapeutics like the ones Cambridge, MA-based Synlogic, a startup from Collins’s lab, is trying to develop.

Collins (pictured above) is a New York-New England hybrid. He was born in the Bronx before moving first to Bellerose, in the outskirts of Queens, and later, after he finished elementary school, to New Hampshire. He used to have a strong New York accent and, as a Queens guy, was a fan of the Jets, Mets, and Nets. (Former Nets small forward William “Billy” Schaeffer, who also grew up in Bellerose, would shoot hoops nearby.) Now that Big Apple accent is largely gone (“I joke that I’ve got a New York attitude but not a New York accent,” he says) and Collins shows a fierce allegiance to all teams Boston. He even threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game in 2008 at Fenway Park.