BioBuilder Podcast: Karen Katz Show Notes

Life-changing science: BioBuilder podcast.

Episode 10: Karen Katz.


Karen is a Legal and healthcare executive, entrepreneur, and business development leader. She is currently the Deputy Director at the Office of Behavioral Health at MassHealth.


Karen was one of the very first members on the BioBuilder Board of Directors. She helped shepherd the nonprofit from its earliest days, oversaw significant expansion of the Board, and helped BioBuilder keep its content freely accessible while establishing new partnerships and collaborations.




-“Meaningful education is about learning something that is applicable to your world or your life.

How does bioengineering impact the world? How do we take something and you show what difference it can make in the present day?”


-“The idea around the BioBuilder curriculum is to give a better set of experiments, a better reason for these experiments.”


-“Organizations like BioBuilder really incentivize somebody to really pursue careers in science.”


-“One of the skills that I learnt from my work at BioBuilder was the entrepreneurial startup mentality where you jump in, learn as much as you can, asks lots of questions and figure out how you take the idea to the next level.”


-“The type of curriculum BioBuilder has created, allows people to really apply what they learn.”


Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:00):

Hello, and welcome to life changing science, the BioBuilder, the podcast, I’m your host Zeeshan. And on today’s episode, we have Karen Katz. Karen is a legal and health care executive entrepreneur, external relations and communications fundraising, and business development leader. She is currently the deputy director at the office of behavioral health at MassHealth. Karen was one of the very first members of the BioBuilder Board, she helped shepherd the nonprofit from its earliest days, oversaw a significant expansion of the board and helped BioBuilder think about how to keep the content freely accessible while still being able to bring the curriculum to new partnerships and collaborations. Let’s dive right into this episode

Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:44):

To begin our conversation. I’d first like to ask you about how you first got involved with BiBuilder and I guess more specifically, what did you and Natalie discuss when you first met?

Karen Katz (00:58):

Sure. Well, I think that is important to note that I’ve known Natalie for an exceptionally long time because we attended the same high school and that’s how I know Natalie. So when I moved to Boston, I think she was already here. And of course we kept up a friendship and a connection. She began building bio builder alone, and then as she grew and grew, she started to need more support. So she reached out to me in part to discuss some strategic things, as well as some legal issues. So he was working on forming the entities that were going to be BioBuilder, as well as negotiating some of the intellectual property issues. So at the time I was working at a law firm and I was also serving as a mentor at MIT at the venture mentoring service. So I had a couple of different connections to not only MIT, where Natalie had been working and where BioBuilder kind of launched, but also had some legal expertise to bring to the party, so to speak.

Karen Katz (02:05):

So when we first met and spoke about BioBuilder specifically, although I known Natalie for a long time, it was mostly focused on the entity formation and what the challenges were or were not going to be in terms of licensing out the intellectual property that she had created from MIT, which is a very common thing that entrepreneurs go through. And Natalie certainly is an entrepreneur in terms of launching this curriculum. So that was our, our, our first round of discussions on that. And I think it was through that work that I joined the board.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (02:40):

How would you define the term meaningful education?

Karen Katz (02:44):

Well, I think that what’s meaningful in any educational context is learning something that’s applicable to your world or your life. So one of the nice things about the bio builder curriculum, right, is that it’s all, how does, how does this work? How does some bio engineering really impact the world? Like how can we take something and show you what a difference it can make in the present day? You might also consider something that’s a hands-on learning experience also to be meaningful in that while doing it, you’re learning, you’re learning how to do the activity, but you’re also learning perhaps it is the right career fit for you. Is this something you want to keep pursuing? So I think that when meaningful kind of comes into the poor, it’s meaningful for the learner meaningful in terms of the output and meeting for, in terms of career development.

Karen Katz (03:36):

I mean, one of the things that Natalie recalled and tells us part of her story, and I truly feel this is that in high school, we do a lot of textbook learning. It’s very dry, lots of problem sets and labs that have been done for years and years and years. And a lot of times it’s hard, particularly in some of the hardcore science classes, chemistry, physics to understand how any of this matters to anybody, why are we learning this? Or we feel like we might be learning this in a vacuum. And so the idea around the bio builder curriculum is to give a better set of experiments, to give a better reason for these experiments and to explain why the types of work that you’re doing really is being used today in the real world, right? And, and that this is how science is applied.

Karen Katz (04:28):

So the meaningfulness behind the bio builder curriculum in part is really application, but now the job, you know, really being the spokesperson of the curriculum, you know, going way beyond our borders to make sure that meaning the borders Boston to make sure that it’s available and accessible, you know, partnering with teachers across the country. And I know I’ve cited the country in order to just get the materials out there so that you can peak more people’s interests. When I were talking earlier about, you know, your experience in terms of, you know, liking the sciences, liking doing the podcasting, liking marketing, like in communications, and how does this cataclysm of things all kind of come together? And what does it mean? Well, on, on many levels, what it does do is all of these different disparate inputs tends to end up in the land of discovery, right? There’s, there’s really no, there’s no science sometimes to how a new drug breakthrough happens. It’s, let’s try a lot of different things and have a lot of different minds focus on this problem and see what we get. I’m not saying that science is methodical and that’s saying that it isn’t, you know, something that’s very focused, but I think that bringing in a lot of different ideas and people into the bio builder curriculum will basically ultimately benefit the scientific community because you’re not having people just from Boston, for instance, pursuing careers in synthetic biology.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (06:00):

What were some of the initial challenges bio builder faced as an early stage nonprofit? I think a big issue might have been how to think, how to go about thinking about how to keep the content freely accessible while still being able to bring the curriculum to new partnerships and collaborations

Karen Katz (06:20):

Like any startup in this certainly was what was going on. When I was first involved, you have lots of different things, building the websites, figuring out what kind of corporate entity you’re going to be, figuring out how to get at the intellectual property. As I mentioned too, in licensing out from MIT fundraising, grant writing building out your board. I mean, one of the things I was involved with for Natalie is, is I’m not an intellectual property lawyer, and I’m not you know, I don’t have all of the skills she needed. So I recruited a lawyer to come on to her board that had a broader set of skillset and could provide, you know, more advice. And she was during that timeframe, building out her board, thinking of her financial strategy, you know, am I going to be a grant funded organization? Am I going to get money, another way to run, run this and so on.

Karen Katz (07:13):

And so all of those things kind of come together. You know, you setting up a business in some respects, you know, so how am I going to advertise myself? How am I going to recruit people to get my, you know, who wanted to get my curriculum? How am I going to educate them? You know, some of it was serious blocking and tackling. I remember Natalie had some relationships with Biogen, so she could use their conference room space in order to have teachers come. She could educate them on how to run a bio builder club or how to run a class and so forth. So, you know, I think that she found herself doing everything right, that Jack of all trades feeling where you’re one day you’re setting up space the next day, you’re writing a contract the next day, you’re talking to a bunch of teachers the next day, you’re writing your Ted talk and delivering it the next day.

Karen Katz (08:00):

You know, you’re over here and over there and everywhere. So I mean, super exciting. And it’s super challenging because, you know, you jumping into things that you may never have done before. What are the exciting things that Natalie was going through during the early days of bio builder was figuring out whereby a builder ought to reside. It had been residing at MIT. It was, you know, something she did out of her office. And over time she was looking for other places that would be more appropriate. And I think for a while, she was aligned with lab central. Now she’s got some basic Gingko Bioworks, but you know, being connected with MIT and yet becoming a separate entity was really art of Natalie’s transition and bio builder’s transition from what might be sort of a satellite of an MIT kind of a thing to, you know, its own full-fledged educational organization that was working towards its goals. And so watching that just location transition was certainly a very exciting thing to witness over the past 10 or so years

Zeeshan Siddiqui (09:06):

Was BioBuilder more of a constant or core part of your identity as a professional rather than a job.

Karen Katz (09:15):

So it’s definitely more part of my identity or, or career path since being in Boston. I’ve been involved in the biotech community in many different ways. I’ve worked with science clubs for girls I’m on the board of addgene, which is a plasmid repository, a large one. I’ve been about with BioBuilder, I’ve been involved with a number of women in science groups and S and, and I’ve worked at law firms and law schools in the areas of intellectual property law and so forth. So it I’ve been in and out of the community of biotechnology for a significant portion of my career, as well as downstream from it in healthcare. So presently I’m, I’m a deputy director at Medicaid here in Boston very much downstream from molecules and synthetic biology and how we make drugs, but nonetheless, you know, connected to the healthcare system. So bio builder was certainly one of the things that I was involved with because it aligned with a lot of my everyday work plus of course, as I mentioned, I know Natalie for a long time. So it was important to me to support her in, in her launch of this endeavor.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (10:33):

Has BioBuilder influenced other aspects of your life in terms of deciding which career steps to take next. And I guess this question can also be rephrased as what are some of the key cultural skills and sensibilities from your experience at bio builder that have served you? Well,

Karen Katz (10:53):

One of the skill sets I brought to bio builder and that I learned from my work there is that sort of entrepreneurial startup mentality, where you jump in, you learn as much as you can. You ask lots of questions and you figure out how to take the idea to a next level. And that is a skillset that along with my law background, I’ve brought to many situations where there’s a problem. It needs to be solved. And so what is a framework or rubric I can apply in order to, to take that problem and move it at least to the next level? So the experience at bio builder many years ago, really for me, helped me hone that type of skillset of, okay, we have a problem. We need to figure out how to get something done here. What do we need, you know, do we need more information? Do we need talent? Do we need some advice? Do we need a strategic plan and so forth. So honing those skills in the bio builder environment was really wonderful for, and it was a skill set that I was able to, you know, build upon and leveraged in, in other work that I’ve done throughout my career.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (12:00):

What would your advice be to life scientists that have just graduated college and they’re interested in learning more about building a startup or being part of a team to build a startup? Again, broad question I know,

Karen Katz (12:17):

And instantly, you know, there’s lots of ways to get there or to get, get, get many places, but I always tell people try something in the field. So if you graduate and you can get yourself a job in a lab, go do it, go do it. And while you’re there doing the work, you know, make connections, ask people, find out about other people’s career paths so that you can get a sense of, well, if I want to be like my boss, what did she do to get there? If I want to be like the person who runs, so that area, what do they do to get there? Do I like, of course the work that I’m actually doing is since I’m working in a lab, is this something for me or excuse me, or do I like to do something else? I think it’s helpful to just to dive into an environment, but also be a student of that environment. So not just take a job and work nine to five and that’s that top job. But while you’re there ask, I guess, ask questions and really be a student of that environment, because that will then help inform where you’re going to go next.

Karen Katz (13:29):

You know, one of the things college doesn’t do do well, it does. Okay. But you don’t usually come out of college knowing what it’s like to work anywhere. You know, my, you might’ve had a few internships here or there, and that would be great. Or if you went to a school that was focused on some type of rotation into the work world and back that’s even better, but really until you start working, you don’t understand how, how you fit. You know, you could be a very brilliant scientific mind, but maybe you find staying indoors all day awful. Right? So maybe, maybe a lab isn’t going to be for you, but you may not know that until you just give it a try. And I and so I think the more that one can say yes to opportunity, the better off you will be in terms of finding your career fit,

Zeeshan Siddiqui (14:20):

You’ve worked in the legal field. I would say for most of your career, do you have, have you had people that have come from a biology background, so they’d done their undergrad in biochemistry. And now they’ve sort of transitioned into the working on the legal side of things.

Karen Katz (14:37):

Oh, absolutely. So it’s a very popular potential career path for people. It happens in many ways, but to become a patent where typically law firms want somebody who has their PhD and oftentimes people who get their PhDs and are working at a lab, start to think twice about the decision. They think twice about the decision, because it takes a long time to get there. And maybe they don’t like the money and they want to make more money, very typical, nothing wrong with this circumstance at all. And so a law firm will often pay for someone like that to go to law school and work as a patent agent and later on patent attorney for, you know for the law firms. So I have interfaced with many, many, many PhDs that are looking to make that career transition and it’s, and it’s a big one when you’re going from lab, you know, bench science to working in an, in an office, you know, I mean, and, and talking to people about science, but not necessarily doing the work.

Karen Katz (15:35):

So that is a very common way for people to enter the law field with a science background. You don’t have to have a PhD, but most of the law firms kind of are looking for that. But the other area that is frequent is in the area of tech transfer, where people that have a undergrad or master’s degree, maybe don’t want to get a PhD. We’ll go into tech transfer, working for a university, like an MIT that has a very large technology transfer office. And they’ll work with people from the outside, seeking to license out technology from the university that work with the people that are doing the discoveries at the universities to ensure that they’re patented and protected. So there’s, there’s lots of different roles within a tech transfer office where you may not need to have already obtained your PhD. So those are two areas that are legally related that are very common. And then even just working on material transfer agreements at a university, or at a place like add gene is another science and law overlap that people will, will pursue

Zeeshan Siddiqui (16:42):

One other question about the early days regarding the legal side of things. Cause it was part of MIT BioBuilder was part of MIT initially, and just the legal side of taking her. I don’t know what the exact terms are, but what was the most difficult challenge for you in the process of turning BioBuilder into an independent company? Cause I presume MIT would, would have owned some of the IP and they provided some of the lab space and I’m sure they would want something in return from BioBuilder.

Karen Katz (17:15):

At MIT, the majority of the intellectual property, right, is, you know, a molecule or something that’s easily patented. But what Natalie had created was a curriculum and, and, and some, you know, descriptions of how to do something and, and sort of processes. So for MIT, that was somewhat of an unusual kind of intellectual property. And luckily they weren’t really seeking money, you know, for that, or looking for some type of royalty stream as they might’ve with a hard science type of discovery. It did take some time, honestly, to have everyone educated as to what it was. She created, what its value was and then just get the paperwork in place so that she had permission to use what she created, which I know sounds kind of crazy. Right. But she created it at a time when she was working at MIT.

Karen Katz (18:10):

And when you work for a company, when you work for an organization like that, you know, there’s paperwork in place that requires that anything you discover or create or invent, they, they own it. So we had to go through some back and forth. And I think that the tech transfer office in particular just was new to the idea of, of the, the curriculum being the invention. You know, if it had been a molecule, if it had been some kind of, you know, gizmo or a new type of code, it would have been like, oh yeah, we, we know all about that. But, but what Natalie had in invented so to speak was something just new to them. So it took some time to just, you know, get the documents in place and then get her well on her way thereafter.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (18:55):

So we’re entering a new phase of education. And I think we have been for a few years. I think BioBuilder is definitely front and center. How do you view BioBuilder now when compared to when you first started with, by BioBuilder, in terms of what are some, what are some of the questions that you’re still asking yourself? Some like right now, you were also asking yourself a decade ago. And what are some of the process, most surprising questions that you’ve had to ask yourself recently when it comes to a new phase of education or developing a curriculum, or just about by BioBuilder?

Karen Katz (19:32):

I think that where I filed, it was a very small entity. Natalie was making the kits and sending them to people, right. She didn’t even have anyone to help her. So the organization has grown in that. She’s got people to help her and to make new curriculum every year. And what have you. So the growth has been phenomenal and that’s been fabulous. I think the other thing concomitant with that growth is the use of platforms, frankly, like this one right now, you know, in theory, you could join a bio builder club and be in Mexico and join a club in somewhere, you know, in the United States, there’s so much more connectivity that it’s easier to learn and to get into this hands-on learning. Certainly the pandemic has taught us even more about what’s capable of what technology is capable of and how we can leverage it to learn more.

Karen Katz (20:25):

So not only her growth and the expansion of the curriculum development of more and more curriculum, but then also the leveraging of technology has made it even more important, but also more accessible for people across the world to get access, to, to circle back to what you and I spoke of in the beginning. I’ve always been a big proponent of hands-on learning, learning by doing and what I’ve seen. I don’t think my definition of that has changed. And I don’t think the value for me at least has changed in that type of learning, but the avenues to pursue that type of learning have really grown, you know, programs like bio builder now exists, certainly the internet and the connectivity and access exist. Almost all major universities have put much of their coursework online for free. So people can at least learn a little bit along the way about whatever it is. That’s interesting to them without writing a big check for tuition. So our ability to access at least, you know, the basics and get information has really improved and grown. And then this type of curriculum that BioBuilder has presented allows people to really be applying what they learn. You know? So I think that there’s just so many more avenues to pursue meaningful education today than there used to be.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (21:45):

You mentioned that universities have put a lot of their coursework online and then with Coursera and index, and you can become a full-fledged software engineer in a year. And I know Google are launching their own set of certifications. If you complete all of those, technically you they’ll be okay with you working full time, regardless of whether or not you have a college degree, 2020, everything’s been online. And I think most universities that are now in a hybrid format where a lot of the lecture materials online and people aren’t going to college for lab work or small group tutorials. I want to ask you if in the near future, if you can see universities teaming up with initiatives, such as BioBuilder to instead of where BioBuilder is integrated into college curriculum, let’s say BioBuilder, there will allow you, if you’re a college student, you can take classes from BioBuilder or attended BioBuilderClub, and that can count what’s credit for university courses.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (22:44):

I think that would be really interesting because if you can, because there’s, there’ll be not just for synthetic biology or biotech. I think this can be, I know you can take a few software courses online and count that towards credit towards a university degree. Can you see that happening with BioBuilder? I think that would be really, really cool where instead of just paying thousands of dollars for one class, you can take a certain number of hours as part of a BioBuilderClub, or do an internship with BioBuilder either as, as a teacher or a student and have that counted towards your degree.

Karen Katz (23:20):

Yeah, I, listen, I it’s, it’s a great idea, I think, and certainly anything’s possible, there’s so many avenues now that one can pursue in order to whether it’s become a software engineer or, you know, a lab technician or what have you. And so I think that anything is potentially possible. It’s really just a matter of somebody in this case, those that lead BioBuilder to decide, okay, we want our, our curriculum to be leverageable for college credit, for instance, and then figuring out what, what would need to happen for four colleges except that. So I don’t know if that’s a strategic initiative for viable or not, but you know, anything is possible

Zeeshan Siddiqui (24:00):

From your perspective. I guess from the legal side of things, what are some of the most important considerations for open education? I’m sure there are a lot

Karen Katz (24:12):

You know, I think that there are a million different things that open education presents as opportunities and challenges. And perhaps the biggest one is if you go to a university’s website and take their courses without paying tuition, and maybe don’t get feedback, don’t get a feel kind of critical review of your work is that enough? And if, as long as you pass some type of certification exam, have you done enough to then be competent in the field? And I think that that is the big challenge for not only hybrid learning, but asynchronous learning and so forth is, you know, is it, is it enough is a, is a certifying type of exam enough for somebody to then move out of the learning environment and, you know, a competent nurse folder, whatever it is that you’ve studied. I mean, and also who decides, who writes up this certification type of entity that then says, okay, you took these seven classes, take this test.

Karen Katz (25:17):

Now you’re good to go. You are now a certified whatever it is. So I think that all of those constructs pick a lot of work and are harder to figure out. And not only does the learner want to know now that I’ve done this coursework, you know, and I call myself a coder or am I really not good enough yet? Have I really learned enough? So it’s that, that assessment and measurement piece, and it existed before online learning it existed before bio builder, but before certification programs. But I think that’s going to continue to be a challenge as alternative learning environments continue to be more and more common.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (26:00):

Is there anything you’d like to add that I may have missed?

Karen Katz (26:04):

I’m absolutely just delighted and excited to be here talking to you today and to be part of BioBuilder. Even after many years of not serving on the board, it has been just a joy to watch the organization grow. And as I said earlier, you know, my, my son has benefited from organizations like this and he’s now, you know, 27 and getting, getting his PhD. And I think that organizations like this really help incentivize somebody to, to pursue careers in science.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (26:33):

Thanks once again, to Karen for joining me today, it was great to talk to her about the early days of BioBuilder and what it takes to develop a new educational platform from the ground up.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (26:43):

An insightful common Karen made was on how meaningful education means to learn something that is applicable to your world or your life, and how this is integrated into the BioBuilder curriculum where students and teachers are taught to not only develop a better set of experiments, but a bit of reason for those experiments. We’re forced to think about how bioengineering impacts the world around us today. I feel this episode will be very useful to anyone interested in hearing about the early days of BioBuilder, as well as learning more about the overlap between science and law in a startup environment. If you’d like to learn more about anything, Karen and I discussed today, please refer to the show notes. Join me for the next BioBuilder to podcast. Welcome another wonderful guest whose career has been influenced by BioBuilders life-changing science See you next time.