Justin Pahara (’06 BSc,’08 MSc) has always seen himself as a biotechnology entrepreneur. With his new startup company Synbiota, he’s hoping to give everyday people the same entrepreneurial opportunities. Synbiota is all about making science and biotechnology accessible to the masses—even if he’s not sure yet what they’re going to do with it.
“Right now, life science is very much a corporate or academic endeavour,” Pahara says. The world of biotechnology is filled almost exclusively with the likes of the military, large corporations, and universities. Pahara compares it to the world of computing in the 1970s and 1980s.
The goal of Synbiota is to break down these barriers, enabling individuals to work with biotechnology in their own homes, much like the Internet and personal computers enabled the public to make strides in computing and software design. Also like the early days of computing, it’s anyone’s guess where people will take the technology.
"We couldn’t predict what would be created once computing and software went mainstream, once it got into the hands of people who weren’t trained academics,” Pahara says. “Biotechnology is going in the same direction.”
"Just keep going until you find something you're passionate about, because it can come out of nowhere."
Synbiota is the product of years of education, networking, and research for the two-time U of A alumnus, who grew up on a family farm just outside Lethbridge in Southern Alberta. Equipped with degrees in immunology and infection and in cell biology from the U of A, a PhD in biotechnology from the University of Cambridge, and having graduated from
as a Google Fellow, Pahara has come a long way from his first few years in Edmonton.
When asked for his advice for current students, Pahara advocates, “Just keep going until you find something you’re passionate about, because it can come out of nowhere. For me, it came in my third year. I almost flunked out in my first few years at the U of A because I wasn’t interested in anything in particular.”
It was his experience participating in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGem) program that changed Pahara’s career aspirations for good. “iGEM was absolutely key in transforming my understanding of how science should be done,” says Pahara. “Being part of the U of A iGEM team was the first time I worked with other passionate colleagues from very different walks of life. Since then, I have not worked on a ‘traditional’ research team.”
A member of one of the first U of A groups to attend the iGEM competition in 2007, Pahara and his group, who nicknamed themselves the “Butanerds,” won first prize in the environment category at the MIT-hosted event with their project, which involved altering a bacteria similar to E. coli to produce a clean and reliable source of the alternative biofuel butanol.
The experience also showed him how the non-standardized nature of science today often contributes to inefficiencies and can hinder progress. “It has been suggested that the majority of science research, representing billions of public dollars, is not reproducible. Billions of dollars and decades or centuries of people-hours are wasted,” he says. “Standardizing science and making it more open will change that. This is exactly what I am working towards.”
With Synbiota, Pahara is running a company that he hopes can provide some of these same life-changing opportunities to the next generation of biotechnologists. “It’s the early days of biotechnology, and it already touches billions of people’s lives every day. It’s still very closed off,” he said. “We’re working to break out from that situation so that a lot more people are able to alter humanity and change the world.”