On May 26 – 27, geekStarter synthetic biology teams from Calgary’s Ted Harrison School and Canmore’s Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy travelled to California to participate in the final event of the Berkeley Program – an exceptional experiential learning opportunity where the students learned directly from local scientists and entrepreneurs.

“MindFuel’s support makes it possible for geekStarter teams to experience this truly transformative hands-on environment,” said Magda Pop, geekStarter project manager. “The students see first-hand what a strong drive for entrepreneurialism looks like and what they need to do to move their projects closer to commercialization.”

Blending design thinking and synthetic biology, facilitators J Anthonypillai (Berkeley BioLabs), Kat Zorina (IDEO), and Vivek Rao (Berkeley, University of California) engaged students in a variety of experiences that provided new perspectives and insights into their projects, and acquainted them with the local area’s uniquely rich culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

The teams spent the first day at the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation at UC Berkeley, in a new maker space designed for creative teamwork. As the day unfolded, each team shared their journey and learnings, and went through several iterations of their project ideas and designs with practical insights and guidance from two expert guests and the three workshop facilitators. Inspired by case studies of successful start-ups, the students reflected on ways for bringing their ideas to life, and mapped their current projects along the nonlinear path from concept development to final product. The day’s discussions revolved around key ideas like storytelling, concept development, pivoting, and scaling one’s business.

Kinkead Reiling, local entrepreneur and co-founder of Amyris Biotechnologies, shared from his experience with bringing synthetic biology to user needs, and things that help entrepreneurs succeed such as building a minimum viable product and investing in the company’s culture.

Evan Hunerberg, brand expert at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, engaged students in an exciting conversation about marketing, and shared from his experience with storytelling, accessing and creating new markets, effective messaging, and the blurry line between needs and wants.

The teams spent the next morning at IndieBio, a successful accelerator for start-ups in the biotech industry. Here the students met Ron Shigeta, IndieBio’s chief science officer, who took them on a tour of their labs and offices, and then gave them a crash course on launching successful biotech businesses. The highlight of the visit was a productive lesson on pitching, where the students applied Ron’s modelling and feedback in real time, and went through several iterations of their pitches with a much improved final output.

For the remainder of the workshop, the teams visited IDEO, a reputable design company that uses design thinking, and which is the workplace of Kat, one of the Berkeley program’s facilitators. Kat took the teams on a tour of IDEO and emphasized features of her workspace that inspire people to be creative and invent. As wrap up to the event, the teams shared their highlights from the past couple of days and gave each other feedback on long-term goals and next steps for their projects.

The teams found the whole event to be engaging and beneficial, and they are excited to take their ideas and projects further using what they learned in Berkeley and San Francisco.