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Banana-Scented Bacteria, Fluorescent Silk: How BioTech Goes Beyond Just What's Medically Necessary

We must think about biotechnology differently, says Reshma Shetty, cofounder of Boston-based startup Ginkgo BioWorks. And we must evolve how we view the science's purpose and participants.

During a recent talk at Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business event, Shetty, No. 20 on our list, argued that the barrier of entry for biotech ought to be lowered.

"Part of the reason why biotechnology has been restricted to just a handful of people so far is because it's really expensive," she said. "By and large, if you want to start a biotech company, the way you do that is by raising about $5 million in venture financing. I look at friends in the web industry, and they get to start their companies for $100,000, and there are a lot more people that have access to $100,000 than $5 million. How do we lower the barriers of entry into biotechnology so that anyone can start a biotech company...just like a lot of people can start Internet companies these days?"

Shetty believes the transformation is already underway. Due to equipment becoming less expensive and information being more widely disseminated about the field, she argues that we're going through a "democratization of biotech." Shetty points to a school in India, where students built a centrifuge and an incubator for growing cells at a fixed temperature, all for just hundreds of dollars. "[It was] kind of some of the basic label equipment if you're interested in hacking on biology," she said. "They weren't actually scientists or engineers—they were artists…[and they built] a functional lab over the course of the summer."

For someone known for engineering bacteria to smell like bananas, it's no surprise that Shetty recommends thinking more broadly about the potential of biotechnology. She discussed a research center in Japan that was able to engineer silk to fluoresce, and spin a wedding dress that glows in the dark.

"Many scientists and engineers looking at that would say, 'What's the point?'" she said. "Well, they did it because it was interesting. They did it because it was beautiful. They did it because they wanted to."

"All of a sudden, biotechnology is not just what's medically necessary, but it's what can inspire us," she added.

[Image: Flickr user DanielJames]