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:

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