EP 290 – Tom Williams – Number 8 Bio – Agriculture Is the Foundation of All Civilization

by | Aug 16, 2023

The Asia Tech Podcast was wowed by its conversation with Tom Williams, a co-founder and the CEO of Number 8 Bio. From the origins of the company's name to the potential impact it could have on climate change, this entire conversation was truly amazing.

Some of the topics that Tom discussed:

  • Malthusian Population Theory – Synthetic Fertilizer and Crop Breeding
  • The mechanization and automation of farming
  • The impact that agriculture has on climate change
  • How the Syn Bio 10x program unlocks the latent potential of Australia’s academic scientists
  • The importance of addressing the sustainability issues in agriculture
  • The opportunities and risks of commercializing deep tech innovations in agriculture

Some other titles we considered for this episode, but ultimately rejected:

  1. The Number 8 Wire Mentality
  2. The Sustainability Angle Is Really Important
  3. Life Is a Little Bit Harder to Engineer Than I Originally Thought
  4. Synthetic Biology and the Future of Agriculture
  5. Agriculture Is Inherently a Biological Process
Read the best-effort transcript

Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):

Michael Waitze 0:05
Okay, let’s go. Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to the Asia Tech Podcast. We are joined today by Thomas Williams, a r and the CEO at Number 8 Bio. Tom, thank you so much for coming on the show today. How are you doing?

Thomas Williams 0:19
I’m great. Thanks, Michael. And thanks. Thanks for having me.

Michael Waitze 0:21
It is my pleasure. Can I ask you this first? What is the significance of number eight? The bio part I get? But what’s the number eight part?

Thomas Williams 0:29
Yeah, that’s a great question. So I grew up in New Zealand, you might be able to tell from my accent. And in New Zealand farmers have what’s called the number eight wire mentality where they can actually fix anything on the farm using a piece of number eight fencing wire, which is particularly bendy and malleable and versatile. So that’s really, I guess, ingrained in the psyche of Kiwis like me. And that’s the mentality that we like to think we have a number eight bio when it comes to solving agricultural problems using synthetic biology.

Michael Waitze 0:57
I love it. I’m so glad I asked that. Do you? Does your family come from a farming background?

Thomas Williams 1:02
No, I was what’s called a townie. But I was in a small town in a large dairy region called the Waikato. And a lot of my my friends and rugby teammates were dairy farmers. So

Michael Waitze 1:12
what in New Zealand? What exactly is a townie because I grew up in a bunch of small towns too. And we called ourselves townies as well. So I’m curious like what that means in New Zealand?

Thomas Williams 1:21
Yeah, I reckon it’s very specific to a small town that has a lot of farmland surrounding it. And it’s the kids that are not farmers, but they’re in that small town. So that was,

Michael Waitze 1:34
I guess, for us, it was like the kids that weren’t part of the main thing. They were just the townies, like the kids over there that like maybe weren’t part of the main thing that was happening? I guess, in your case, it was farming. Can we talk about this too? Can we talk a little bit about the history of farming, right? Because I think it’s actually super important. And maybe you go back, I don’t know, 10,000 12,000 years? I don’t know where it starts? I’m sure you do. But can we do that first? Because then I think it puts everything else into context? Yeah.

Thomas Williams 1:57
Yeah, absolutely. So in my mind, agriculture is actually the foundation of all civilization and underpins everything that we do. And the reason for that is that prior to about 10,000 years ago, humans were largely hunter gatherers, they didn’t settle in places permanently. And that’s largely because the seasons change and the food moved. So that we underground underwent this massive transition around 10,000 years ago, where we stopped roaming, because we could start to grow crops and animals and in single locations, basically. And what that did for civilization is allowed us to have a surplus of food, which meant that not everyone in the community had to spend all of their time getting food, which opens up specialist roles. So that, you know, zoom forward 10,000 years, we can have podcast hosts, and co founders and scientists, because we don’t have to physically feed ourselves every day. And that’s all thanks to agriculture,

Michael Waitze 2:50
I think I’m definitely at the bottom of that part of the food chain. But I don’t want to pass over this idea of it being the foundation of civilization, because I actually think this is really important. Because when you are nomadic, and you’re running around, and you’re pre Neolithic, right, you don’t have time for spirituality, you don’t have time for family structure, you don’t have time for culture, you all you’re trying to do is survive. So once agriculture becomes a thing, and people actually figure out how to produce food, they understand seasonality and planting, and also cattle raising animals. We’ll talk about that later. Now you have to organize in a different way. So it changed the structure of everything. And I just want to be clear about this. You’re not just talking about the way people ate, but just the way they really lived. Is that fair? Yeah, it

Thomas Williams 3:35
doesn’t sound wise, but I don’t want to be disrespectful to those cultures that have remained hunted, you know, hunter gatherer as Yeah, until now at all, like they still have, you know, rich and complex lives. But if we’re talking about the, I guess, what I would call the grand ambitions of civilization, which is to keep this ball rolling for as long as possible, have quality of life and, you know, eventually expand beyond the surface world. And agriculture is critical to that.

Michael Waitze 3:59
Yeah, that was very actually pedestrian of me, because I was talking about it in the context of Western culture. You were right. And I was wrong. And and thank you very much for pointing that out. Because it is important. And those syllogisms have advanced drastically across the board. So thank you very much for talking about that. Can we talk about what modern agriculture agriculture is itself? And how it’s changed over time as well?

Thomas Williams 4:20
Yeah, absolutely. It and human progress quite closely coupled here. And so so as agriculture in our population, they will. Obviously there’s been huge change throughout history. But the period of time that I like to zoom into in the context of this is post World War Two. We had a population of, I forget what it was two to 3 billion, something like that. And there were all these Malthusian prophecies of population collapse, we’re going to run out run out of food, 2 billion people are going to starve. And they at the time, those predictions were accurate based on current technology. And the reason the reason that that didn’t pan out, is basically because of two very simple things. synthetic fertilizer As a and crop breeding, so we’ve started using nitrogen fertilizer and bred better varieties of crops that grow more efficiently with fewer resources and with higher yields. And 2 billion people didn’t starve because of that. So that’s a really profound leap. It’s called the Green agricultural revolution. What was

Michael Waitze 5:18
the what was the role that mechanized farming and farming consolidation moving at least in the Western world, from smallholder farming to almost corporate farming as well, right, because technology had to have some impact on that, too. Yeah.

Thomas Williams 5:31
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s the other. The other piece of technological puzzle is mechanization and automation. You know, without these, these big, sophisticated tractors that harvest crops and, you know, modify the soil, there would be no way, just no way that we could economically feed the population that we currently have.

Michael Waitze 5:48
And I feel like and again, I mean, I’ve already made like, 17 mistakes, and the worst like three minutes of this conversation and keep pointing them out, because that’s why we’re here. But I feel like a lot of the a lot of the innovation that we’ve seen in the farming world, I’m not gonna say up until today, but let’s say in the previous like 35, or 45, or 50 years, has been around mechanization, putting technology into all this equipment, making the crops better, the fertilizers better. And also, I can’t remember the name of this, that but the thing that protects the crops as well, but also adding GPS, it’s just taking the farm equipment there and just making it like IOT connected and all that stuff. Yeah. Right. Is that Is that true, too, because now I feel like we’re reaching a flipping point or a tipping point where all that innovation has happened. And now people are realizing, oh, okay, well, now, there’s a negative side to that, too. And maybe you can explain some of that as well.

Thomas Williams 6:38
Yep. Yeah, absolutely. Farming trends with the rest of the big advances that go on and society in terms of big data, and AI and all that sort of thing. So that’s absolutely happening. But we still need more productivity. We’ve, you know, in some ways, we’ve maxed out what we can do with certain classes of technology, like chemical fertilizers, and to an extent mechanization. So a large part of what we’re doing, which I think we’ll get to later, it’s is unlocking that next leap in productivity and sustainability. But the sustainability angle is really, really important. Because although agriculture is the foundation of civilization, and underpins everything that we’re doing, it’s not perfect, just like everything humans do. It’s not perfect, and it has some negative consequences, right? So animal agriculture alone has accounting for something like 15% of climate change agriculture, as a whole as something like a quarter to a third of all climate change. And this has profound consequences. And that, it means we’re using a very large amount of Earth’s habitable land, to make crops for example that animals eat. And to do that we have to, we have to use areas of earth that potentially should be forest,

Michael Waitze 7:42
can I get a better understanding of this, I did a recording, it’s gonna be almost a year ago now with a venture capitalist in Singapore. And they’re starting to invest that they want to build 100 companies with $100 million of value that are in the ESG space, right? It’s called WaveMaker impact. And he was one of the first people who explained to me that the farming of rice and the farming of crops has a big impact on the environment and on sustainability. But can I understand why like, is it just the machines that are doing it? Or like, what is the real reason for that impact? I really want it

Thomas Williams 8:13
Yeah, yeah, the principal reason is actually fertilizer. So we had this giant leap post World War Two with fertilizer use that expanded productivity in the population. But now that that causes a really, really incredible problem of greenhouse gas runoff. So the nitrogen that we use as fertilizer for crops, only about half of it actually goes into the plant, the other half goes into the waterways and the groundwater and gets converted into a greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide. That’s actually 265 times more potent than carbon dioxide. So something like 5% adverse climate change comes from fertilizer runoff, and earth spins 1% of all electricity, making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

Michael Waitze 8:54
1% of all the energy. Yep. Doing

Thomas Williams 8:57
a single chemical reaction called the haber bosch. It’s incredible. I want

Michael Waitze 9:01
to ask a really another really uninformed question, but why do we hear all this stuff about carbon, decarbonisation, carbon credits and stuff like that? And we don’t hear enough people talking about this nitrous oxide runoff? And because people know what nitrous oxide is, it’s not even hard to pronounce. Do you know what I mean? Why do we never hear about this? If it’s such a big problem?

Thomas Williams 9:18
Yeah, I honestly don’t know. I reckon every carbon trading framework, and every government policy should actually have a co2 equivalent for nitrogen. And for nitrogen, nitrous oxide. I think some of them probably do already. But to my understanding, most of them actually don’t. It’s one of the critical pieces of this whole puzzle.

Michael Waitze 9:35
Well, then I’m super, if I learned nothing else on this on this recording, that’s got to be one of the most important things, particularly if 1% of the Earth’s energy is spent on producing this stuff, and then it just runs off and what percent did you say actually goes into the crop?

Thomas Williams 9:48
It’s like half, roughly, depending on the crop and how you use it, you know, at least variable.

Michael Waitze 9:53
Yeah, fair enough. Fair enough. Okay. So talk to me now about the synthetic bio part of this thing and then me Maybe this is a good time for you to tell me about your background. So I can see where you fit into this in bio ecosystem.

Thomas Williams 10:05
So as we’ve covered, I grew up in this little farming town, well aware of the problems of agriculture and but also the importance. Yeah, I started my career as an undergrad studying biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, in New Zealand. But somewhere along that journey, I got really, really excited about synthetic biology. And actually remember a critical moment in my life where I read a scientific article. And never never before and never since that I had such a heart pounding profound realization, in a single moment. And it was a paper written by a famous scientist called Craig Venter, who had chemically synthesized and assembled the world’s first synthetic genome. So every gene, every base pair of DNA was designed and constructed in a lab and brought to life. And to me, that told me that genetic engineering is no longer a boring grandpa science where one gene is altered at a time, we now have in my naive mind, at the time, complete control of biology, and we can really harness this to do important things in the world. I spent the last 10 years realizing that that’s not quite the case. And we don’t understand it well enough to you know, design genomes and have them work. But anyway, since that moment, I went and did a PhD at University of Queensland, then I became a postdoc here in Sydney, and eventually an academic group leader, reasonably well funded lab and a large team. But more recently, of course, I found at number eight bio, and I’ve left that behind to be the CEO,

Michael Waitze 11:29
you gave me a chill, that’s I was holding up my arm not to like make some kind of display, but I was holding on my arm because I gotta chill when you talked about this, the DNA sequencing and your idea went after you read that article. And I want to have a link to that as well in the show notes so that other people can read it to know Yeah, I can help you with that. It’s super weird when you have these, I hate the word epiphany. But when you have these sort of Epiphany style moments, right, I remember I was reading an article, this has to be 25 or 30 years ago, and scientists had created something that completely mimicked the use of the human eye. And I remember just reading, I was sitting on my desk on the trading desk at Morgan Stanley and I just thought, Okay, if we can make an AI, then we gotta be able to make everything else.

Thomas Williams 12:10
Yeah, that’s a good point.

Michael Waitze 12:12
I feel like the universe is being deconstructed bit by bit. And again, tell me where you think I’m wrong here. You’re way more scientific than I am. But I feel like in my sights, I see all these little things changings, all these little things changing bit by bit. And scientists are bit by bit understanding and breaking down and fragmenting everything and disassembling it and saying, Well, now that we know how it works, and now the technology is moving really quickly, and we have access to all this data, we should be able to reconstruct almost everything that we have. And to me, it’s like an existential thing. More than a scientific thing. We can talk about that later. But I just love the way it’s just everything’s being disambiguated. Talk to me about how this works in the agricultural space, right. So you went and did a PhD, you did postdoc, I almost want to know like what you learned there that now you’re applying to number eight bio?

Thomas Williams 13:04
Yeah, yeah, let some interesting, interesting lessons. The chief one being that life is a little bit harder to engineer than I initially thought as a naive undergrad reading that paper.

Michael Waitze 13:16
You know, sorry to interrupt you. But isn’t that a good thing to learn, though, right. In other words, you read the paper and you get super excited, you’re like, Okay, I’m dedicating my life to this thing. And then you go and study and learn. I think people misunderstand. I’m sorry, you can feel my excitement. I think people misunderstand, like, what a PhD is, right? And again, my understanding from the people that I know that have gone through it, it’s like a three, four, it could take five or more years. But it’s like studying something that Mike, everybody doesn’t understand where you really want to dig as deeply as you possibly can and come up with something new. It’s like taking classes on stuff. It’s just a higher level. It’s a different level of research and understanding. But if that reading that article, inspired you to do that, even if your original idea wasn’t, I’m gonna say right in quotes, it was still worth it, because it inspired you to go and do that. Is that fair?

Thomas Williams 14:03
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I had a blast. I worked with some of the most incredible people and incredible minds you’ll ever meet, I did engineer life to do profoundly new things, which I get an absolute kick out of not so much anymore. But at least in the early days, of made useful knowledge made useful things. And I’m now transitioning that knowledge out of academia and into the, quote unquote, real world.

Michael Waitze 14:25
Yeah. So how does that work? Because that was the original part of this question. Like, how do you take all that stuff that you learned and apply to the things you want to accomplish?

Thomas Williams 14:32
Yeah, well, at the heart of this is the fact that for us, agriculture is inherently a biological process and a biological system. And like I was saying before, we have somewhat maxed out the advances that we can get through other interventions. So there’s a massive, massive opportunity here to apply the toolkit of synthetic biology to reengineer life to customize it to scale it to improve it with you know, the 1000 fold increases that you can get from it. Taking an engineering biology approach. So that that’s chiefly why I’m applying my skills in the commercial context of agriculture.

Michael Waitze 15:07
Can you pick an example for people so that they can get a better understanding about what that means? You said reengineering. And a couple of other things. Can you just give an example? Like, is it just making a better banana? And I’m being a little bit facetious, right, just to make the point. But can you give us an example of something that you’re working on that you think is going to be transformational so people can understand and walk through the process of how you do that?

Thomas Williams 15:28
Yep. Yeah, absolutely. So that our company number eight bio actually started based off a single insight, and that was that there’s this incredible species of seaweed called asparagopsis Tex of fullness, which, when included in the diet of cattle, almost completely eliminates their methane emissions, which, by the way, cause between six and 10% of all climate change, and decrease the animals productivity. And see, we does that through making an incredible cocktail of different active molecules. So great, great effect. But the problem with seaweed is that it’s very challenging to scale up, it’s slow growing, you can’t engineer it, it grows in seawater, it’s photosynthetic, all these like really physically inherent limitations. So a lot of what synthetic biologists like me actually do, is we look at something like that, that’s kind of off the shelf in nature. And we think how can we make this scalable and deliverable in a format that society will more readily accept. So what we’ve been doing is taking genes from seaweed and enzymes from seaweed, reengineering them, and yeast, which can grow at multimillion liter scale all around the world, you can make tons of this stuff in a couple of days, it’s already fit to cattle, it’s already approved by the regulators. So we’ve just taken a non scalable system. And we’re scaling it up and something that really works and customizing it and making it work better at the same time.

Michael Waitze 16:45
I’m just blown away. And again, I’ve always had this thought, right? That on Earth somehow, or maybe in the universe somehow, but at least close to us in earth. Somehow all the materials for the things that we need and want to survive and thrive, are already here. It’s just up to us to find it and to find ways to put it all together, if that makes sense.

Thomas Williams 17:09
Yeah, I see it that way, as well. I see almost the purpose of life is trying to understand the big picture of the universe and to apply it to keep the ball rolling. Yeah.

Michael Waitze 17:20
You also mentioned fermentation. Can you talk about why that matters as well? Because before I before I started doing some research for this, I’d never considered fermentation as the thing like when I think about fermenting things, I think about you know, whiskey and gin and stuff like that. I don’t think about synthetic biology, where does that fit in as well?

Thomas Williams 17:38
Yeah, so fermentation is the means of production for most of synthetic biology. And how that works is, if you imagine a beer, yeast, you know, growing on the sugars released from barley and producing alcohol. What we do is we engineer the metabolism of a microbe like yeast to not make ethanol, but to make some other valuable product, whether it be seaweed molecules, or a pharmaceutical or a new type of food or a material or a biofuel. Yeah, it’s endless the possibilities there.

Michael Waitze 18:08
Do you remember the feeling that you and the team had when you realize you could take the benefits of seaweed, which is hard to scale for all the reasons that you mentioned? And then reengineer them and then actually finally do it and figure out because reengineering It is one thing, right, but then producing it at scales and other thing we’ve been doing? We’ve been talking about this in sort of quantum physics and quantum chip making space for years, right. But so far, we’re almost there. People haven’t been able to do this at scale. But what does that feeling like when you realize, Okay, we have this idea, we found this thing, we can mend factories, but now we can do it at scale. So now we can take away this What did you say six to 8% of all?

Thomas Williams 18:44
Oh, climate change, climate

Michael Waitze 18:45
change as a result of this? What does that feeling like? Seriously?

Thomas Williams 18:49
Yeah, well, we it remains for us to execute on this impact, like we are in the r&d Lab stage. But yeah, we’ve had some we’ve had some fun time celebrating this. I think one of the real breakthroughs we had actually came after my co founder, Alex Carpenter, and his partner had been over at my place for dinner one night. And Alex, Alex had a critical experiment running in the lab. So he, he and Holly actually went back to the lab at about 10pm to check the result. And I got a text from Alex that night saying, We’ve got it had works. And they were apparently dancing by the complicated instrument that does this measurement. So yeah, so from there, we’ve been productizing and trying to scale up basically,

Michael Waitze 19:28
I think this is the coolest thing about this kind of progress. Is that and don’t take this the wrong way. I’ve said so many wrong things on this already. But it’s just like, regular people. Do you know what I mean? Regular guys and gals out there just trying to do the right thing, who wake up every morning, take a shower, have dinner with each other have friends watch movies, have a beer, and then while they’re also doing all these like killer experiments trying to make the world a better place. Do you mean like you sitting there having dinner? Maybe you’re having laptops, I don’t know. Right? And then in the middle of it, they go okay, we gotta go back because we’ve got this environment running, and you’ve just had dinner, maybe you’re talking about your kids or whatever, and they text you and go, we got it. And you just stop.

Thomas Williams 20:09
Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s not often you get those those profound moments, but they are worth savoring and cherishing.

Michael Waitze 20:17
When people think about startups, right, they think about Uber. And, you know, Instagram, want to say shit like that, right. But what what’s happening, it’s in bio. X, I think is what it’s called, is some real deep tech research that’s really trying to have a real impact on not just like, how people’s lives are made more convenient, but more sustainable, which is, in a way is way more important, I think, how do you see it fitting into the startup ecosystem, because I have to presume when you were, when you left zoom, when you went to get your PhD, when you started doing all this stuff, you weren’t thinking I’m gonna have my own startup company kind of thing. But once you get into that ecosystem, how do you feel like that as a thing, can help accelerate this?

Thomas Williams 21:04
Yeah, it’s been really, really transformational, doing research within the context of a startup compared to doing it within academia. So you’re right. My goal, initially, you know, at the outset, wasn’t to make a start up and do anything like this, it was, that wasn’t really a thing back then, at least in my psyche, it was more to, you know, have a good time, learn something useful and make some useful knowledge for the world. But you know, eventually, as you progress in the system, you learned that it’s not necessarily the most efficient or impactful way to do research. And by that, I mean that fundamental research is, is underfunded, and in most developed nations, Australia is no exception there. And what that means is that you have small projects that are, they have one or two people working on them. Typically, one of them’s a trainee, one of them’s a bit more experienced, if you will, if you’re lucky, and you’re very good, you want to $500,000 grand every three years, and you have two people work on individual projects. So you have these little two man armies, basically working on stuff. Whereas in a startup, you can put far more resources into a single driving goal. And you can have the most elite scientists that you know, you can cherry pick them from wherever you want, compensate them well, and have them all driving towards something that’s meaningful and impactful as a proper team. No one’s fighting over authorship or, you know, grappling for, you know, their other grand ambitions to win the next grant. It’s really, really nice.

Michael Waitze 22:25
Is there a natural tension? And how was that tension removed in the program that you were in that then what’s the right word that then migrated into the startup world? Because if I understand this correctly, right, the synbiotics program, you participate in that yeah, I want to make sure I did. Yeah, that’s right. But that’s also part of UNSW. No. So there’s a whole thing going on there that doesn’t seem to be going on in a lot of other places. That seems super cool. No, you don’t I mean, because otherwise, you’re right, you would be doing some cool research, you’d have to fight for grant. And that grant would be 500 grand as opposed to 25 million bucks. And then the resource allocation to those things is so much smaller than it probably should be or could be. But what was this idea to then move it into the startup world so that you could fund things like this? You know, what I mean? Like, what was that natural tension that exists? And then how does it get better when you move into this kind of environment where the university itself realizes we got some kickass stuff going on here? And instead of running it through the normal process, we run it through that process? And actually bring it in here?

Thomas Williams 23:29
Yeah, I think universities are still undergoing a bit of an awakening to the possibilities of founder led scientists lead startups, the traditional model that they perceive as to license license IP to big corporates, basically, because of the pressures to publish that scientists have. What that usually means is that when they bring their technology to the tech transfer office, it’s quite immature, and it’s not actually ready to be commercialized, which means that it’s very unlikely that a big corporate will actually pay for that and commercialize it. But if you do this, within a startup, you get the passion and energy of the scientist directed towards making that technology and actual commercial product or service over the time that’s necessary to do that. You have it in a commercial vehicle that can bring in the capital and the resources to do it. And so it’s a fresher model, I think, within Australia, and the synbiotics program is really great at unlocking the, like the latent potential that exists in Australia’s academic scientists.

Michael Waitze 24:25
So how far along are you guys? Do you? I mean, have you been funded external to the program as well?

Thomas Williams 24:30
We have. Yeah, so we we officially founded in about a year ago, about May 2022. And we’ve we’ve largely been doing r&d to date and assembling our team.

Michael Waitze 24:42
Yeah. Yeah. And when does this thing get commercialized? Or when do you think it can get commercialized?

Thomas Williams 24:48
We’re looking to do our first cattle trials early next year, and then commercialize immediately afterwards. Oh, my God. So we’ve, we’ve, we’ve had great success in the lab so far.

Michael Waitze 24:58
That’s insane. And when doesn’t When do you feel like this moves outside of Australia and into the rest of the world? Because this is not a local problem. This is a global problem. Yeah.

Thomas Williams 25:07
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So we’re looking to commercialize in parallel in North America, we’ve actually already got a US based subsidiary, Australian parent company, we’re gonna go go hard there as well. Kettle in the US. Both dairy and beef have very controlled scientific diets. And so it’s a nice place for us to enter with this additive.

Michael Waitze 25:25
Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of people would be surprised if they understood how the how the cattle market worked, right. I mean, they have a very scientific data, the most people think they’re just out in the field somewhere eating grass, if you know what I mean.

Thomas Williams 25:36
Yeah, a lot definitely are. But even those, even those animals often receive supplements that increase their health or balance their, you know, their vitamins and their salts, there’s always a way a way to reach them, no matter how much grass they’re eating.

Michael Waitze 25:49
I always think that the deeper you get into a particular subject, the more it changes the way you view the world. Or as you’ve already talked about this one way, when you read this article, I want to get this guy’s name, right. Because you did say it, Craig. Yeah. Craig Venter. Right. Yeah, that it changes the way you think about it. But now that you’ve gone through this whole process, and you’ve actually created this thing, how, how is it not possible for you to look at the rest of the world and think we can also change that we can also fix this, you know, there’s something we can do over there as well. Do you know what I mean? We’d like the vision, maybe just get so much bigger? Because in your day to day life? Now, you see, I didn’t think so. But that’s also an opportunity. Does that make sense?

Thomas Williams 26:32
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s, that’s core to what we do at number eight bio, we’ve got a Swiss army knife and synthetic biology, and we can apply it to many different problems, not just enteric methane mitigation. Yeah, there’s all sorts of molecules that we can engineer the production of, and a microbe that is a sustainable sources of nutrition, but also a functional source of nutrition that improves productivity, or decreases disease, or improves flavor, or coloring, all sorts of different things we can do.

Michael Waitze 26:59
I love this. I want to talk a little bit about capital raising as well. And just the confidence you get from building something that obviously works. Do you know what I mean? So if you go back to I like to use Instagram as an example of something we don’t really need, but somehow everybody’s using it, right? So when you go out to fund something like that 10 or 15 years ago, people are like, do we really need filters on photos kind of thing. So you’re sitting in a meeting with a guy who really has to believe that you’re gonna be able to change behavior for people? Do you feel like this, I don’t even know how to say this the right way. But like this insane confidence of like, if we need to go out and raise money for this. It’s always hard, but it shouldn’t be easier than raising for that thing, because the the impact is so much more obvious. You know what I mean? You must go home with confidence on this? No?

Thomas Williams 27:42
Yeah, I think there’s a trade off there, actually. And that, although there’s a more like a strong impact, you know, environmental impacts that we’re, we’re bringing into the world, there’s also greater risk than someone making a, you know, a Snapchat or an Uber or whatever. It is, like with deep tech, it’s a genuine question whether it is even possible to make the technology come to life. Whereas if someone’s building an app, you know, for absolute certainty that there’s no technical challenge there, you give the right number of programmers the right amount of money, they will make it so that there’s greater risk in the eyes of the investor. And there is greater risk in reality as well with what we do.

Michael Waitze 28:18
Yeah. But there is at the beginning, and again, tell me where I’m wrong here. There isn’t the beginning, right? And actually, I would say the risk at the beginning is kind of the same. Are they going to use the photo op? Are they going to use this synthetic bio? We don’t know, right? Because the traction is exactly the same if no one’s used it, meaning the the photo op. And if you haven’t, really, if you haven’t really created this synthetic biology that you want to. But once you have created it, I’m not saying the risk is completely removed. But it’s like we know this works. And now we just have to figure out a way to do it scale and get it out into the world. Yeah. Does that make sense? No.

Thomas Williams 28:47
Yeah, I would add a little bit of nuance to that. A lot of Synbio products also have the commercial risk, there is actually a question mark over whether it will be uptaken in the market. And, you know, we see that we’ve seen that play out, I suppose with plant based meats to some extent where they weren’t quite as popular as what was initially envisaged by founders and investors. So know that there’s definitely still market risk, I think for the deep tech. Yeah, for sure.

Michael Waitze 29:14
It’s just I’m sorry, these this side of this conversation is actually really interesting to me, right? Because you are involved in it every single day. Are there other risks out there for this kind of stuff that we don’t understand? In other words, is there incumbent opposition to some of this stuff that you’re doing? Right? So if somebody’s literally out there farming seaweed, and they don’t want you to come in, and because you’re basically going to take their business away right. Now, the flip side of this is they could invest in your business and just do less work and make more money and have better impact. But is there incumbent resistance to this as well?

Thomas Williams 29:43
Yeah, I mean, the world’s a big place, and there’s always going to be some farmers that want to sit in products, because the story behind it and I think that will be the case for seaweed going forward. But yeah, there’s all sorts of other risks, right, and in particular, in the context of regulations for synthetic biology. It’s different in different parts of the world like we make we make GMOs and how you how you have that in your product. It really matters depending on where you are in the world. Yeah,

Michael Waitze 30:09
really interesting. Okay, look, I’m gonna let you go unless there’s something else that you wanted to cover. But this was so interesting. And hopefully you could hear the interest in my voice and the excitement just being able to have this type of conversation with you. I would say this, you as well, as you make progress, if you want to come back on the show and talk more about stuff that you’ve learned or that that have changed or has developed or things that came up that you didn’t anticipate. That would be awesome. Tom Williams, a co-Founderr and CEO at Number 8 bio. From beginning to end. This was really, really great. Thank you.

Thomas Williams 30:37
Thanks, Michael. Thanks so much for having me.


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