Julie Legault is designer-entrepreneur from the city of Montreal. She is also the co-founder of Amino Labs, an MIT spinout that builds hardware and synthetic biology products making genetic engineering accessible to children and non-scientists. Join us for this very exciting episode as Julie walks us through her transition from designer to synthetic biologist, the key role BioBuilder played in this new career path, the birth of Amino Labs, as well as reflections on the journey so far.
Link to the 100k BioEngineers in 100 Days Challenge: https://amino.bio/pages/100kbio
Design-entrepreneur, Maker movement, Synthetic biology, Amino Labs, MIT media lab, DNA playground, Education, Open source
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:00): Hello and welcome to Life-Changing Science, the BioBuilder podcast. I’m your host Zeeshan Siddiqui. And today I talk with design entrepreneur, Julie Legault. Julie is the founder of Amino Lab, an MIT spin-out that builds hardware and synthetic biology products, making genetic engineering accessible to children and non-scientists. Let’s dive right in. Julie, thank you so much for joining us today.
Julie Legault (00:28): Thank you for having me.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:30): You’ve become an internationally recognized entrepreneur. But your career did not start up there. What were you working on early in your design and applied arts career?
Julie Legault (00:41): Yeah, so actually entrepreneurship is, is not something that was on my radar really until I got interested in biotech, but my background when I was in undergrad and so I studied in Quebec and we have something called CEGEP even before undergrad, which you know, is, is like, I guess, preparatory to undergrad. So I did that in design and presentation, and then I did undergrad in design art and computation art and really my focus which is easier to see after all these years, but it was about using new technologies, but making them accessible and exciting for the general public. So one of those example is wearable technologies. So, you know, before we all had Apple watches and Fitbit’s, and you know, even those headphones that record your biometrics, wearable technology was all about LED sweaters and glow up shoes. And while they’re still pretty cool, you know, I could tell that that wasn’t necessarily the right way forward.
Julie Legault (01:49): And I could tell that there was a lot of really exciting things that could be done with biometrics beyond just, you know, having LED patterns, shine on your shirt, which is more clubwear than anything you would really ever see, or maybe like Blade Runner, movie script. So, yeah, so I was really interested in, in looking at biometrics and wearable technology, but bringing it to something that the mainstream would be interested in and could start to make sense of their data in something would, they would wear every day. So for that, you know, I worked on a lot of watches and handbags and that sort of things.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (02:26): What triggered your interest in doing a Master’s and or what attracted you about the MIT Media Lab?
Julie Legault (02:34): Well, it’s hard not to be attracted to the MIT Media Lab.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (02:39): That’s true, that’s true.
Julie Legault (02:39): You know, it’s like where Lego Mindstorm came out of is where Scratch comes out of. And, you know, a lot of really exciting things come out of the MIT Media Lab. And
Zeeshan Siddiqui (02:49): Definitely.
Julie Legault (02:49): At the time that I applied, I had graduated from a Master’s in goldsmithing
Zeeshan Siddiqui (02:55): Okay.
Julie Legault (02:55): Which, you know, doesn’t really, it gets you some places, but not in the high tech world. So I was working on using biometric data and jewelry for the case of autism. So how can we use that type of technology, like biometric data to help people with autism understand their body and their environment. And there was a group doing that type of research at the MIT Media Lab. And I, I was finding that on my own without being in a research program, I was struggling a little bit. So I decided to apply to grad school to really get, you know, help with my research,
Zeeshan Siddiqui (03:35): The graduate program you applied to, was that offered by the Media Lab itself, or was that
Julie Legault (03:42): Yes.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (03:42): Okay
Julie Legault (03:43): Yeah, it was so the Media Lab has many different research group, and so I applied to one of those research groups where, what they were working on and what I was working on had a nice overlap.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (03:54): So in a few past interviews, you talk about how you discovered that there were no tools for beginners to really explore biotechnology, and that really became part of your Master’s thesis. Can you say a little more about how you discovered this and why you prioritized it in your thesis?
Julie Legault (04:14): Yeah. And I can also maybe use this opportunity to explain how I jumped from autism wearables to biotech. So, so I was still you know, I did my Masters 2013 to 2015, and in 2013, I was still working on these tools for autism. But I was looking more into smells. So how can we use olfaction to modulate emotions or you know, triggers? And chemistry is really hard in terms of creating smells, but at the same time, there was an event going on at the Media Lab where Synbiota, which was a earlier biotech company came and gave a workshop to a select few about how to build a DNA program and how, you know, that could be then grown into bacteria to create a biotech product. And I had heard whispers actually through Natalie presenting at the Media Lab about how you can use biotechnology to create smells.
Julie Legault (05:19): So I was kind of like all I’m percolating in my mind that this might be a good avenue for my research. Also, it sounded cool and interesting. So I attended this workshop by Synbiota and we did build the DNA program and assemble it and then put it in bacteria. And then the bacteria, you know, grew that program, which was to create violacea, which is a anticancer compound that’s while it’s being, you know, research as an anticancer compound. So of course I had never held a pipette before, so this was over two weekends and I was like, Oh my God, this is amazing. You know, I’ve just created a living organism that can create some medicine. And I have never done this before and through the presentation in that workshop and having met Natalie prior I knew that there was so much more that could be done with biotech. You know, you can make perfumes that react to your emotional state. You could do so many things. And I was just blown away by the idea that as an adult who had never done science beyond like, you know, high school volcano type experience,
Zeeshan Siddiqui (06:28): Promoting science fair type experiments,
Julie Legault (06:30): You know classic I guess nineties science class I was really excited that, you know, I could do this. And the other side of it is that I also helped me understand what GMOs were and what was in the news in a way that before I hadn’t had the language to really get familiar with. So essentially this became so interesting to me that I decided to swap my research and try to create my own smells that would react to hormones for the, this existing research, but then how I my thesis kind of skewed toward education was that I realized that it was actually really hard. If I wasn’t in BioBuilder workshop or in a Synbiota workshop, and there was no scientists holding my hand it was very, very hard for me to create what I was trying to create. So even though I had learned that I could do it, there was like a gap between what I could do w what I knew I could do and what was available for me to do it with, if that makes sense.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (07:35): I guess some of the conclusions you drew from your thesis sort of established the Amino and the DNA playground, right? Yes. And yeah, that’s right. And yeah, that brings me to the birth of the Amino. So what did production of the prototype and MVP that is the first DNA playground involve and what does R&D and production involved now?
Julie Legault (07:59): Yeah, so for us, you know, the way that Amino and BioBuilder are different is that we focus on, you know, creating a, a little lab that you can bring anywhere you are. So my idea was that adults and designers and makers like me would want to do this in their own studio. And then, whereas BioBuilder teaches the teachers how to teach it right, and also teaches the students therefore. So for us, what ended up being very important early on and what R&D ended up being was just user testing. So finding everyone from adults that had never done it to teachers, to real scientists in the lab, to older people, very, very, very young kids, you know, four years old, six years old, and just bringing yeah. And, you know, learned that four years olds are a bit too young.
Julie Legault (08:57): So, you know, you learn things, but what was super important for us was to do user testing. And that’s what we did for the first three years of the company. So it was workshops, it was bringing prototypes that were, you know, just a bunch of wires on the table and kids that weren’t kits and just testing with everyone we could to see what would work and what was bringing value to people. And so today, you know, five years on, we still do a lot of user testing, but we now we’ve learned what brings value to people. So instead of starting from scratch, we’re just looking at how to extend our learning journey that we have today.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (09:37): Awesome. And just coming back to the early stages of the Amino, how, how big was your initial team? I presume it would have been very interdisciplinary and collaborative because you would have needed not only synthetic biologists, but I presume engineers and people from, I guess, the business school and school of humanities and arts would be involved as well.
Julie Legault (10:01): Well, this is true and not true for us. So we’ve always worked very lean. So I’m with the lean startup, which is you get away with as little as possible. So you test very early on. So not building a big team was really important for us and my co-founder, he’d gone through a different company that had a big team and it can start costing a lot of money when you’re still trying to figure out what your product is. So we really wanted to stay flexible and lean. So what we ended up doing, so myself being a designer and Justin being a scientist, we were the core team. And then we got contractors. So we, I had some friends from that computation art program earlier, and that ended up being the mechanical engineers and you know, their programmers and software engineers to help us. And then, you know, once we were ready with our prototypes, then the contract was over, which meant that we didn’t have to keep paying them, which, you know, sounds dumb, but that’s really important when you’re a small company.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (11:06): Yeah, of course.
Julie Legault (11:08): Yeah.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (11:08): This year it’s, especially this year has seen the change to like a massive change in the education landscape, the trend that as in the transition to online teaching and online learning, how’s it been to lead your organization through this challenging transition
Julie Legault (11:28): For us? We’ve been lucky in that we already cater to remote learning because as I said, we have like the DNA playground, so that already takes away the need for that lab. So for the home learners, you know, nothing’s changed. We still cater to home learners. And then in terms of schools, what’s been interesting is this idea that they’ll get the DNA playground and they’ll get our kids or their kids, or we’ll work together on some new kids. And then they can do their lab courses over the, the zoom call or whatever platform they’re learning. So that’s been really interesting. So in essence, the school will pay for each students to receive a kit at home. And that’s been really exciting to work with teachers on that because, you know, you, the teachers I’m meeting right now are the ones that are very passionate and they definitely want their students to still have those hands-on experiences. And really, you know, that wow moment of growing your first bacteria, there’s nothing like it. And having it change color, you know, or glow in the dark, there’s nothing like it. So they’re still working really hard for their students. So it’s really it’s really great to see those educators, you know, go through the hoops that the university or high school will put up with, you know, all the hoops that they put up,
Zeeshan Siddiqui (12:48): It’s really remarkable, um how you’re able to, like, I would love, like, I thought, I’d never say this again, but I’d love to go back to primary and high school with all the new sort of educational technologies available, like grind with your teacher on the other side of resume. I can never imagine that, like, that’s brilliant and it just opens up makes biotech and synthetic biology accessible 200 times more people than would be. Could you tell us about the exciting initiative between Amino Labs and the BioBuilder Educational Foundation, 100K Bioengineering Challenge.
Julie Legault (13:24): Yeah, of course. So that was something very fun that we did early on and that Natalie really helped us with. And the idea here was because we were both companies trying to bring biotechnology to everyone, and we both realized through the course of our operation that not everyone can afford to do the hands-on or to go into the BioBuilder lab or anything like that. And, you know, while the hands-on is pretty cool, the next big best thing is a simulation, we thought. So the idea of the 100K Bioengineering Challenge was to create a virtual simulator called the virtual bio-engineer. And it basically mimics doing an experiment where you just drag and drop up your, you know, your bacteria and your agar tube and your antibiotics. And it has a little pop-ups that tells you a little bit more about the experiment and when we actually, yeah, so it was it was actually Justin’s idea and we decided, you know, what, you know, lean startup style, we’ll build it and we’ll see, maybe people will love it and maybe they won’t, but actually people love it.
Julie Legault (14:34): They, you know, since then we’ve built another few simulators and people all over the world, they use it every day. And it’s amazing. Like I think it’s four years since we created that first one, not only, but it’s still being used every day. And we see bumps, you know, during school year. And then in the times it’s a little bit quieter, but it still gets used. So it’s really exciting to see you know, that all over the world, people are able to at least do the simulation and learn the basics of it.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (15:04): And that’s the important part. Like once you can get the basics done, once you sort of get that spark of interest in biotechnology, and then, then you’re able to teach yourself and you become self-motivated self-driven and that’s really the eventual goal.
Julie Legault (15:19): Yeah. Yeah. And you know, how are you going to choose a career in biotech if you don’t even know what it means, right. That’s something that is super important. And you don’t think about, you know, children or teenagers, they have to decide their careers before they’ve experienced most of the subjects out there. And of course, a lot of them are we’ve seen in movies. You know, what a nurse is with a doctor is what a programmer is. You know, engineers we’ve seen that, but we’ve not seen, biotechnologists so much outside of Jurassic park and that’s not necessarily the best you know, so yeah, it’s really important for, I think for students too, to see what it could be, cause it’s not only being in the lab. It’s you know, today we see a lot of material science being done, and Adidas and Stella McCartney, they’re doing fashion.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (16:09): Exactly, exactly.
Julie Legault (16:09): It’s super exciting for kids that even don’t want to become scientists, but they can get to learn the basics and then go work in fashion. Or so, yeah. So it’s important
Zeeshan Siddiqui (16:20): When you reflect on your journey so far, what are some of the key lessons in culture skills, sensibilities that you’ve found helpful in your journey and development as an entrepreneur?
Julie Legault (16:33): Yeah, so I think the main thing and I think we’re really lucky to be at the beginning of this movement because I think collaborating with peer companies has been so important, you know, for Amino and BioBuilder to work together and there are others out there. And I think it’s important to remember that it’s not a zero sum game. We’re all here. We’re all great companies working towards, you know, moving that needle in the education space and working together. It’s far outweighs the, you know, the benefits that we get. It’s so much better than just being a lone Maverick out there and trying to do everything yourself and stay isolated because of competitive edge or whatever you want to think it’s all about. I think we’re really lucky because in biotech, everyone seems to be very collaborative and, you know, I I’m, I’m really lucky.
Julie Legault (17:25): I get to still speak to Natalie, you know, a few times a year and it’s always great. And we get to speak about what’s going well, what’s not going well, but I, I never feel like, Oh, I shouldn’t tell her this. Or, or, you know, that we’re holding back. We’re just helping. Well, yeah. We’re all helping each other. Yeah. And I think that that’s been the best thing, you know, as an entrepreneur, especially, you know, as a younger woman, I can’t say young woman anymore, you know, as a young woman starting out and, you know, I went, I went to Silicon Valley for a while and it definitely is not a nurturing environment, but Natalie is very nurturing. So, you know, being able to speak with her and others. Right.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (18:05): And having BioBuilder that support as well is, yeah. Brilliant. Julie, thank you so much for joining me today. It has been an absolute pleasure to talk to you.
Julie Legault (18:17): Awesome. Well, thank you so much for having me and thank you for BioBuilder and for all it does. I’m excited to listen to this podcast series.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (18:27): It was such a pleasure to talk with Julie and hear about how she was able to use her skillset and interests in biometric data and goldsmithing and transfer that passion into a separate field, which eventually led to the birth of Amino Labs. I also thought her comments about the importance of collaboration and how this is not a zero sum game was very insightful. I believe this episode will be very helpful to people who are looking for a career change into biology, but are worried their professional or educational background will be a limiting factor. Biotech is such a diverse field and a need of many different perspectives and expertise, and we all need to work together to help this fields continue to grow. Thanks once again, to Julie for joining me, if you’d like to access the 100K Bioengineering Challenge that we discussed, you can find the link in the show notes, Join me for the next BioBuilder podcast. We’ll welcome another wonderful guest whose career has been influenced by BioBuilder’s life-changing science. See you next time.