Kostas Vavitsas: You have worked both in academia and in the industry. What do you miss and what you don't miss from working in a company such as Genomatica?
Kaspar Valgepea: My work experience in Genomatica was a bit special, as I was there as a Visiting Scholar and I ran an independent project. Thus I did not exactly have “corporate” deadlines, which maybe let me work under less stress. Nevertheless, the momentum of work and research in such a fast-growing biotech company was impressive and addictive in a good way. I greatly enjoyed working together with highly ambitious and professional people who had the highest goal: to make biology work for mankind. My co-workers, but most importantly the work atmosphere at Genomatica, truly inspired me to dream big and set the highest goals.
One thing that I do not find in academia is this special teamwork atmosphere where a significant number of people are all working towards one single goal. There is nothing I can think of that Ireally don’t like in the industry, but I would say that one benefit of academia is the freedom to be curious and investigate things that might not necessarily lead to near-term financial gains.
Kostas: Biotechnology and synthetic biology have set high expectations on potential applications and societal impact. Where do you see the field in the next 5-10 years?
Kaspar: Indeed, biotech and synbio have set the bar high but I am optimistic that they will deliver! I think we need a few more breakthroughs that are obvious for both investors, science funders, and people in general to kick-start the snowballing effect. The revolution has clearly started, just last week I felt great when I found out that there is a company in Estonia that is making biodegradable plastic bags from the 1,4-butanediol produced by the Genomatica process! And there will be an increasing push towards sustainable solutions, in terms of biotech, for chemicals and fuels due to climate change. Europe has set several ambitious goals recently, e.g. the new Renewable Energy Directive, single-use plastic ban, waste recycling etc. These actions are essential to fast-track innovation both in academia and industry.
I am personally most excited about the idea of seeing waste as a resource for its conversion into sustainable fuels and chemicals through bioprocesses. I am obviously biased, but I see that gas fermentation technologies for capturing waste and renewable carbon have a huge potential. LanzaTech is proving this by currently operating one and building four industrial scale plants world-wide. There are many other examples and exciting fields, I highly recommend the recent Economist story on synbio for a good overview.
Kostas: What was the biggest challenge you had to face in your professional life so far?
I think things have worked out quite smoothly for me so far. I was lucky to be invited to join the unique lab of Professor Raivo Vilu during my Bachelors in Estonia, and enjoyed working there a lot until my PhD with a few stints abroad in between to the US and Japan. For a postdoc, I searched around quite intensively and it paid off. My postdoctoral experience at Esteban Marcellin’s lab at The University of Queensland was probably as good as it gets, for me at least. I think these steps paved a good way to the startup of my own lab back home in Estonia with help from Professor Mart Loog. And this startup I have been doing since March is surely the biggest challenge I have faced. I have to set up an experimental lab basically from scratch, hire people, start innovative projects, collaborate with industry... a lot on the plate. We will see in about four years how did I do. I am super excited to have this privileged and great opportunity. Fingers crossed that I can transform this excitement into creating a lab where people want to work and can do cutting-edge science!
Kostas: How easy was it to transition from postdoc to PI? Was as you had imagined it?
Kaspar: As I said above, the transition went quite smoothly. I thought it would be harder but it might have turned out smoother due to a few things. First, I started thinking and planning about post-postdoc during the first half of my postdoc. This might help you to have a clearer vision about potential trajectories early on, so you could react faster once options pop up. Second, I was networking and keeping old contacts active in light of potential future research options or collaborations. These two things likely had an important effect on me being awarded two personal research grants and on being selected as the group leader of the ERA Chair in Gas Fermentation Technologies.
Kostas: If you could change one thing in your career trajectory, what would it be? What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to an Early Career Researcher in synthetic biology?
Kaspar: I was happy to conclude that I would actually not change anything! If research at the first lab I worked in in Estonia had not been that exciting, I would have potentially went to do MSc or PhD abroad. I did not do that as I believed that exciting research will lead into results and these are more important later than “just” having more locations on your CV.
My advice for an ECR would be to dream big and then work towards that dream as hard as possible while maintaining work-life balance. If you are passionate about it and enjoy it all along, I think you are all good.
Kaspar Valgepea is leading the ERA Chair in Gas Fermentation Technologies at the University of Tartu that employs gas fermentation technologies together with systems and synthetic biology methods to address global challenges of biosustainability