Young Gun: Kevin Chen, Co-Founder and COO of Hyasynth Bio

  • Published
  • July 10, 2014
Kevin Chen was inspired at a young age to take up the mantle of the scientist. Infused with the curiosity that drives discovery and innovation, Kevin is a futurist not content to wait and see what might be – he’s in the lab, making what might be a reality.

We interviewed the co-founder and COO of Hyasynth Bio – a collaborative biomedical research startup – on what life is like in the meeting rooms and labs of a young biotech company as well as what the future might hold for him – and us.

Tell us a little bit about your business. Who are you and what do you do?
Hyasynth Bio is realizing nature’s potential. We’re taking the machinery that produces drugs, antibiotics and other valuable compounds, and putting it into microorganisms to simplify and enhance manufacturing.

As synthetic biologists, we adopt new technologies, innovations and models in making discoveries, finding cures, and solving problems.

Our current focus is on cannabinoids, which are the biologically active compounds from Cannabis plants that have been associated with a number of diseases. These include multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic pain, and others. But, the plant itself comes with it’s own set of problems. There are challenges in growing and extracting pure cannabinoids, and not everyone smokes. And then there are the regulatory issues on top of that. We’re looking for new ways to produce compounds that are cheaper, safer and more reliable by using microorganisms that can be grown in large batch cultures. This will improve access to these therapeutics for researchers, doctors and, ultimately, patients. We’re currently participating in the Synbio Axlr8r in Cork, Ireland, which is providing us with seed funding and mentorship to get us off the ground. We’re a team of students from Montreal that met through Bricobio, Montreal’s community biology lab.

Do you remember when you first got the entrepreneurial spark?
I learned to do science in teams through the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Since then, researching alone felt slow and archaic. I also got tired of the “academic” or “industry” stigma in research. Then, I heard of open science and met people who were really pushing towards new ideas, and new ways of doing research. And, most importantly, these people were incredibly passionate and believed in what they did more than anything else. That’s something that I knew existed but hadn’t witnessed before, in or out of school, and I was hooked.

image of kevin chen at bricocio home brewing workshop
Kevin talks microbes at Bricobrio’s home-brewing workshop.

What made you choose this business?  What inspired you?
Biochemistry and genetics have always fascinated me. From the day I learned about the genome on a documentary that I saw as a kid, I thought the idea of a fundamental code that defines something as complex as life itself was incredible. And, my imagination flew as I learned more about it. I played with lots of Lego as a kid and X-men was one of my favorite TV shows.

In my undergrad at Queen’s University I got involved with iGEM, then Synbiota, and then Bricobio which lead me here. Synbiota is another startup in Toronto, who are developing new ways of doing and sharing science (look’em up!). There’s a lot of really interesting potential in finding new ways to do research, beyond current industry and academic models. Open science and open source biotechnologies are interesting ideas to explore. We’re looking for different ways of doing good science.

Did you have to convince your friends and family you were serious or were they behind you from the beginning?
Getting started, we were just a few friends and an application to Synbio Axlr8r. So the first thing to do was convince myself that I was serious, and that the opportunity was serious. Then we had to figure out that our idea was serious. Parents and friends were supportive, but maybe it’s hard for simply anyone to point out holes in the project. My science friends had a bit more to say about it. The particular route that we’re on is especially non-traditional.

Kevin Chen in the lab

Describe a typical day.
Wake up. Check e-mail/twitter/etc. If there’s no news, doze off for a little longer. Then get up and head to the lab. At the lab, we’d be working on both the hands-on work as well as brainstorming, designing, writing, marketing and connecting. It’s pretty all over the place. At the end of the day, I’ll head back home, make some dinner and then do more reading, writing, design, etc. before going to bed. It’s an intense schedule, but it’s awesome.

They say you have to fail first to succeed – have you stumbled or has it been smooth sailing so far?
It’s more like sailing through a storm. We’ve taken on water. It’s tough and I’m always stumbling. It hasn’t stopped, but I also hope it never will. I’ll always be making mistakes, nothing will ever work out perfectly, and I learn as much as I possibly can every time. I think the quote “where there’s a will, there’s a way” is often discounted in today’s society. You really have to live it, test it, and keep testing it. Experiment in progress.

Devouring knowledge is top priority for me right now.

What’s your style on a day off: take time to recharge or always hustling?
Both. Recharging is extremely important, but if it’s a nice day out, why spend time indoors? I love to juggle, slackline, unicycle or other similar sports. I enjoy trying new things. Either that, or reading.

image of kevin chen in the lab

Who’s your entrepreneurial inspiration?
At the moment, it would be the other Synbio Axlr8r teams, and Synbiota are my current inspirations. While working for Synbiota, I’ve seen them go through some really awesome but really challenging stuff. But, they’ve got the perfect team. And then there’s people like Ethan Perlstein and Andrew Hessel, who are exploring new models of doing research and pharmaceutical development. We’re on a similar track of finding better ways of helping people than the “big pharma” model. Elon Musk is also interesting, of course.

Any tips for a young gun just starting out?
Meet lots of people. If you’re starting out as a bit of a quiet-type, like me, focus on that and push your way out of your comfort zone. Have a team that you get along with, and that you can depend on. Work with people that inspire and motivate you. Everything is easy to say but hard to do. Get used to just doing things. Make lots of mistakes, rather than being cautious or backing off from an opportunity. Get as much advice as you can, but rarely accept advice without reason. Think futuristic and realistic at the same time.

What does the future look like?
It’s a bright future. There’s still a lot for us, as humans, to learn and it’s hard to say how far in the future this will be true. We’re getting past milestones in extending life, improving health, curing disease and addressing environmental issues. Biology is going through a really interesting transition right now, where the technology and the research are getting faster and more innovative. We’re learning more about life that exists and how to rebuild life from the ground up. Some futurists are even calling it the next industrial revolution. Biotechnology will be highly applicable in most other technologies, like computer hardware and construction. New technologies will have roles in our daily lives, even aside from healthcare. And, this particular stream of biology will be essential in space and interplanetary travel.


Content Manager at FS Local

Jesse is a typical class clown. Born and raised just north of the Toronto, he fell in love with the City on school trips to the ROM and the Science Centre. He tried Vancouver for a few years, but the call of home was too strong to resist. Today he lives in the North-East Upper Beaches. (What? It’s a thing!)

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