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Profile: Alumnus on Mission to "Democratize" Biotech

Mac Cowell '06 displays a translucent sheet
Cowell displays a translucent sheet printed with a tiling pattern of hand-drawn cells, DNA strands, transfer pipettes, OpenPCR machines and other DIY motifs. It served as the master image used to screenprint the prototype packaging for the GENELASER DNA sequencing kit he developed at Cofactor Bio.

Davidson alumnus Mac Cowell '06 notes that computers started out as just spare parts and big ideas in a dreamer's garage, and ended up changing the world. Cowell is now on a mission to help repeat that scenario in the field of synthetic biology. It's a difficult task, though. He's been at it for a decade without a breakthrough creation like solving the energy crisis with algae, or lighting homes and towns at night with plants that glow in the dark.

But Cowell has remained optimistic and enthusiastic, and recently received good reason to maintain his spirits. He is among 23 synthetic biologists worldwide to receive a year-long fellowship from The Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program (SynBio LEAP). The organization selected recipients from academia, corporations, start-ups, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and community labs based on "their visions and aspirations for shaping biotechnology for the public good."

The description fits Cowell well. This San Francisco-based biotechnologist is currently working on low-cost molecular biology tools through a startup he founded called Genefoo. During the past decade he has also worked for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) competition at MIT, co-founded the online community for biotechnologists, started public wetlab in Somerville, Mass., and researched patent use in the genetic diagnostic industry at the Berkman Center at Harvard University. In 2011, he cofounded Cofactor Bio and developed an innovative $25 PCR + DNA sequencing reagent kit for consumers and educators.

His dedication to the "democratization" of biochemistry is reflected in the fact that Cowell, like about 30 percent of LEAP winners this year, does not have a doctoral degree. "The fellowship validated for me personally that I'm capable of making contributions without needing an academic certification," he said. "And if I can do it, so can others."

Crafting Through Code

Cowell with an early OpenPCR thermocycler
Cowell with an early OpenPCR thermocycler that clients used to amplify and mail-order sequence DNA samples.

Cowell said the LEAP fellowship gives him credentials to seek previously unavailable partnerships, networking opportunities and funding. He also will work with other fellows during the year to collaboratively develop Strategic Action Plans that explore synthetic biology's impacts, and propose ways to advance its positive outcomes. They will explore not simply what can be done with biotechnology, but what should be done.

LEAP's year-long, non-residential program began with a "landscaping" gathering of the new fellows in early February to explore the social, economic, technical and political state of the field. They were introduced there to a variety of high level policy makers, regulators, funders and corporate representatives, and explained to them the challenges and opportunities for biotech.

"I came into the meeting with a vision," Cowell said. "Then, being with so many influential fellows and lawmakers who work at the level of national policy left me feeling deeply empowered to make the vision bigger. Now, if I decide I need a large grant from the National Science Foundation, I know who to call to execute my idea."

Fellows left their initial gathering with a charge to work on a personal proposal that they will present to each other at a week-long follow-up meeting in June. Cowell is working on a proposal for the Foundation for Automated and Accessible Biotech (FAAB) dedicated to demonstrating how to build and use existing and new products so that the reliability of biotech research is increased, and the manual labor required to do it is decreased.

Cowell said he is motivated by biology's ubiquity. "It's what we're made of. We're surrounded by biology," he said. "But biology is driven by a code. Reading the code is easy for us now, but using it to create new things is still hard."

Cowell has dedicated himself to ameliorating the "using it is hard" part, and looks forward to the day that biotech can be applied to solve everyday problems in arenas such as healthcare, energy and infrastructure.

Cowell believes success is inevitable, and already becoming apparent. He noted that lab testing and automation used to be so challenging that only large drug companies could afford the cost. Likewise, 3-D printers were available, but cost-prohibitive to the public. Now, with equipment cost at a fraction of its initial price, more scientists and even everyday tinkerers can afford its pursuit.

A Good Start

Cowell with an early prototype of another PCR thermocycler
Cowell with an early prototype of another PCR thermocycler, which eventually spun-off into another company,, and an “arduino-shield” version. Both OpenPCR & PersonalPCRv1 are free and open-source hardware products available on the Internet for people who want to build one.

Cowell arrived at Davidson with an advance placement credit in biology, exempting him from introductory biology courses. During his first two years he took several biology-related courses that reminded him of his passion for biology, but he fell behind the curve in taking courses needed for a major. He didn't take his first required class until the beginning of his junior year. Catching up wasn't easy. He recalls one "brutal" semester with three labs. Among the classes he took was genomics with Professor Malcolm Campbell. Things clicked with the subject and the professor, and Cowell asked Campbell to be his adviser.

Campbell was delighted to accept. He recalled that, as an undergraduate, Cowell was always looking for novel ways to do things, and new areas to explore. He also was impressed with Cowell's eagerness to help make biotech accessible to everyone.

"Mac is a pioneer for sure," Campbell said. "When he graduated, he was bothered that the only people able to conduct synthetic biology research were those attending the best colleges and universities in the world," Campbell said.

He continued, "Mac saw synthetic biology the way Steve Jobs and Bill Gates saw computing-it belongs in the hands of the people. Mac has worked to democratize synthetic and molecular biology by making equipment affordable to bio hackers working in garages today. He also has educated bio hackers about ethical use of molecular tools and responsible research conduct." 

Noodling around the Web one day in 2005, Cowell landed on the home page of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) competition, an international challenge to undergraduate programs to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.

The list of schools participating included all the usual suspects like MIT, Stanford and Columbia. But much to his surprise he also saw "Davidson." He hurried to ask Campbell if he could sign up for the team. Campbell explained that the IGEM team roster was already complete with research students from the previous summer. However, Campbell agreed to accept Cowell as an honorary member, and he attended the event. "I was wowed by the experience," he said. "That set me on the course I pursued after college."

In 2008 Cowell founded, a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing a vibrant, productive and safe community of do-it-yourself biologists. "Central to our mission is the belief that biotechnology and greater public understanding about it has the potential to benefit everyone," Cowell said.

He has recently founded Genefoo LLC, a research and development lab in San Francisco. In addition to importing inexpensive lab equipment, Genefoo developed a synthetic biology exhibit at the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation that involved hands-on transformation and measurement of a three-color reporter system. He has also helped the museum establish an IGEM team, and has agreed to chair the "community labs" section of this year's IGEM.