I’m CTO of Telis Bioscience Inc., an EA/longtermist biotech company using a combination of deep learning and synthetic biology to radically accelerate drug development. Grigory Khimulya and I founded the company about a year and a half ago with the goal of improving pandemic preparedness and reducing global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs). In the time since, we’ve been building an automated antibody engineering platform to rapidly neutralize novel pathogens.
Full disclosure: I’m writing this post in part with the hope that you or a scientist/engineer you know might want to come work with me at Telis. Or start your own longtermist biotech company. Or do something else to cure diseases or protect the world from new pathogens. If you’re interested in any of those things, I’d love to chat!
How did I get here?
I’ve spent most of the past four years working directly on EA-aligned biotechnologies. I started as a cultivated meat scientist at Tufts University and Mission Barns, but over time I grew increasingly concerned about biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for a major career change, so I started a Biomedical Engineering PhD program at Tufts and took up a few pandemic preparedness side projects to begin exploring the space.
I was introduced to Grigory in 2018 by 80,000 Hours, and we kept in touch while he worked on an EA grant to test new ideas at the intersection of protein design and biosecurity. About a year later he was moving back to Boston from the Bay Area and looking for a place to live, so I invited him to stay with me and my roommates for a few months. His deep learning-guided protein engineering research was looking really promising, and he was starting to think about launching a company to put the technology to use for pandemic preparedness. We spent many afternoons sailing on the Charles River and thinking about what it would take to get the company off the ground and build a lab to complement the computational platform.
After a few months of informal consulting, I decided to leave my PhD program and join Telis as a Co-Founder. My background in tissue engineering and mammalian cell biology wasn’t the most natural fit for the work at Telis, but I had a clear picture of where we needed to go, lots of ideas for how to get there, and a deep motivation to bring the relevant technologies to fruition. Most importantly, Grigory and I worked exceptionally well together and were committed to making this platform a reality.
I don’t know how well my path generalizes, but perhaps one lesson is that if you know someone who is doing exciting work, let them sleep on your couch!
What do I do?
I love the feeling of being new at things and the challenge of producing at a high level as quickly as possible. This has made for a tumultuous career, because I am almost always bored within a few months of getting up to speed in a new role, but it has been a huge asset at Telis because my job changes dramatically every few months as the company grows and evolves. Technically, I’m Telis’s CTO, but in some sense I’ve had five different roles since we got started. In roughly chronological order, I’ve been a(n)...
Molecular Biologist: I spent the first few months at Telis setting up our basic lab infrastructure and testing different protein production strategies to find one that met our requirements for speed and throughput. We can now synthesize and purify hundreds of unique proteins in a single day.
Automation Engineer: There’s no way a human could process the number of samples we work with, so as soon as our initial system was up and running I built a robotics platform to increase throughput and minimize hands-on time. This involved sourcing and modifying liquid handlers, writing protocols, and fine-tuning the system so it can run over and over with minimal operator involvement.
Assay Developer: Most assays for characterizing therapeutic proteins are slow, expensive, and tedious. This was a problem for Telis, given our goal of radically accelerating drug development, so I spent a lot of time setting up new assays and finding creative ways to accelerate, miniaturize, and automate them.
Software Engineer: Once our platform was up and running, we started generating tons of data from a broad variety of instruments. We needed reliable, scalable infrastructure for storing and accessing results and sample information, so I built a software platform to automatically track samples, capture and upload experimental results, and ensure easy data access for both our lab and computational teams.
Manager: As we’ve started to grow the team, more and more of my time has gone toward recruiting new scientists and engineers and making sure they have everything they need to do the best work of their lives at Telis.
What am I learning?
Science and Engineering: Finding solutions to an incredibly diverse mix of problems has allowed me to level up my skills and knowledge in synthetic biology, lab automation, protein biochemistry, and much more. I’m still learning a ton of new science all the time (I frequently look back and shake my head at how naive I was the week before).
Prioritization: We're a small team, and there is always way more to do than we’ll ever have time for. I’ve had to learn to be ruthless in choosing the many things not to focus on, so that I can give the important stuff my full attention.
Software Development: Before Telis, I had dabbled in programming for data analysis but hadn’t made it a core part of my work. Being here has pushed me to build a genuine computational skill set to complement my lab background. This has happened in part by working on specific projects that push my skills in new directions, and in part by spending every day with exceptional coders from whom I absorb all sorts of useful tricks.
Team Building: A lot of our work at Telis is multidisciplinary, and therefore requires cross-functional teams with diverse expertise. Finding the right people for this style of work and figuring out how to collaborate most effectively are big challenges (and also some of the most satisfying parts of my job).
Productivity: Learning how to be sustainably productive over periods of months/years has been perhaps the most important challenge of my work at Telis. Making progress toward our goals requires a tremendous amount of effort, and could easily get derailed by burnout. I’m constantly learning how best to balance my work here with the things I find most rejuvenating (currently: windsurfing).
Telis is growing! We’re building multiple teams to expand our platform in new directions, planning our first launch of a real-world product, and looking for brilliant scientists and engineers to join us. Open positions are listed here. We’re particularly excited to see applications from EAs for the ML Scientist and Head of Lab Operations positions—please check them out!
Thanks to Grigory Khimulya and Sofia Davis-Fogel for help with this post.