R.I.P. Austen Heinz, Biotech Entrepreneur and Rebel


I'm sad to report that a promising young scientist, biotech entrepreneur and futurist dreamer named Austen Heinz

died on May 24 at the age of 31. The cause of death is suicide, according to the San Francisco Medical Examiner's office.

When I interviewed Heinz in February of this year, he imagined a future that is both super-efficient and fun and playful. He strove to automate and virtualize laboratory research so that scientists could spend most of their time doing the important work of thinking and making the intuitive leaps that as of yet elude artificial intelligence machines. He'd toss off whimsical and provocative lines about his company's technology allowing consumers to one day "print out your own little dinosaur that actually walks across the table" or improve the genetic efficiency of existing animals because "nature doesn't have DNA laser printers and we do." 

While glowing plants and mini dinosaurs are useful for garnering media attention, Heinz also had his eye on more immediate and practical applications for the technology, such as in the pharmaceutical industry, where the automation of synthetic DNA generation might be a crucial component in improved individualized medicine, if the regulatory system allows it.

"The [Food and Drug Administration] doesn't approve things one-off. They'll approve a small molecule that you can give to everyone on earth. But everyone's unique and that molecule won't work," said Heinz. "Regulation on the medical side of things is going to need to catch up to that."

Austen Heinz is gone too soon, but even in his abbreviated life, he left a mark and made a strong case for a future in which we can easily alter our own genetic destinies and, perhaps, customize much of the world to our liking.

"Everything around us is just code," Heinz said. "Wouldn't it be great if we could just snap our fingers and just re-imagine the world around us, where everything is programmable, everything is re-writeable?" 

During our interview, Heinz told me that he hoped that one day, children would grow up learning to read and write genetic code in the same way they learn the alphabet and arithmetic. His family asks that any donations in his name be made to iGEM, a foundation dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology education.

Reason TV's interview with Heinz is below:

Download Video as MP4

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  1. Aw poop. Rest in peace, science dude.

  2. So sad. I guess everyone has personal issues and sometimes not even your greatest ambitions can help you overcome them.

  3. Why?

  4. Hmm, one has to wonder what was going on that would cause him to want to end his own life. RIP.

    1. I imagine he couldn’t go on living in a world with John Robers.
      I’ve certainly had thoughts along those line.

      1. *lines

  5. That’s too bad. I remember that interview. It was very interesting. He really seemed to be heading somewhere great.

  6. Um, can ‘futurist dreamer’ and ‘suicide at 31’ really be placed in the same paragraph. He made his own choice, sadly enough. Fine; but everyone is looking a bit like an idiot at this juncture.

  7. “”The [Food and Drug Administration] doesn’t approve things one-off. They’ll approve a small molecule that you can give to everyone on earth. But everyone’s unique and that molecule won’t work,” said Heinz.”

    Right now there is a gene in a person that is literally killing them.

    Right now a lab could sequence and “print” a corrected gene which could be used to produce a protein which could then be given to that dying person and they would then not die.

    it is currently illegal to “print” that gene and make that protein and give it to that dying person….and there is little chance it will ever be legal.

    I don’t know if that is why he killed himself….but seeing that doom hanging over you could certainly drive a person to suicide.

    1. I don’t think it would drive me to suicide.

      Possibly to murder, though.

      Definitely rebellion if I had that capability.

      Will the genetic Black Jack please stand up?

  8. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but he sounds like exactly the sort of person that some anti-GMO nutjob would want to murder.

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