Scaling insulin production with Cameron Owen, CEO/co-Founder of rBio

 

 

It's not hard to find someone who has been affected by diabetes and the rising cost of insulin. In fact, today's guest says that 1 in 10 people in the US today have diabetes and that figure is expected to rise to 1 in 5 by the end of the decade. 

That means there's going to be a large increase in the demand of insulin and therefore production. 

Cameron Owen co-founder and CEO of rBio joins the show to talk about how rBio is addressing this problem. 

rBio is a synthetic biology company developing new strains of microbes to produce insulin at much greater yields than current technology offers. By harnessing these advancements in biology, rBio's mission is to reduce the cost of insulin from the production and supply chain standpoint. Cameron shares his lessons learned from launching rBio just before the pandemic, his thoughts on raising capital, quality management, product development, and his passion for how biology (which he argues is the greatest technology on earth) can solve any problem we face in society today. 

His passion and excitement for biotechnology and its applications is contagious.

Show notes

About Cameron: 
Cameron Owen is the co-founder of rBio, a synthetic biology company developing new strains of microbes to produce insulin. rBio is harnessing advancements in biology to reduce the cost of insulin, while bringing pharmaceutical supply chains back to the United States. 

Music by keldez

Transcript

Transcript is automatically generated. Please kindly excuse any grammatical and spelling errors.   

Hi, everyone. Thanks for listening to, from lab to launch. It's not hard to find someone who has been affected by diabetes and rising costs of insulin. In fact, today's guest says that one in 10 people in the us today have diabetes and that figure is expected to rise to one in five by the end of the decade. That means there's going to be a large increase in the demand of insulin and therefore production. Well today, we're talking to Cameron Owen co-founder and CEO of rBio. Which is addressing this problem. RBio is a synthetic biology company, developing new strains of microbes to produce insulin at much greater yields than current technology offers. By harnessing these advancements in biology, rBio's mission is to reduce the cost of insulin from the production and supply chain standpoint. And Cameron today shares is lessons learned from launching rBio just before the pandemic, his thoughts on raising capital quality management, product development, and his passion for how biology, which he argues is the greatest technology on earth, can solve any problem we face in society today. His passion and excitement for biotechnology and its applications is contagious. Let's bring them in

Grant: 

So Cameron, thank you for joining us on from lab to launch today. Really excited to talk to you about your experience with the.

Cameron Owen: 

Grant. Thanks for having me here. I'm a little biased, but I love talking about what we're doing. So I think this will be a great conversation.

Grant: 

Yeah. Looking forward to it. So Cameron, tell us a little bit for those who don't know a little bit about you and rBio, tell us how did it get started? You have a big mission at your company. And so tell us how you started and why that mission amongst so many things you can have. Sure.

Cameron Owen: 

Sure. I'll actually take you back to September of 2019. I was working on another startup that I had launched during grad school at Johns Hopkins. Ran that as a CEO and co-founder for a few years. But I started to get these ideas in my mind about another potential company. Synthetic biology was really becoming more of an established field as opposed to maybe more fringe than it was earlier in the decade and there were some really good breakthroughs that had happened. So I stepped away from that company and wanted to pursue a PhD in synthetic biology space. But long story short of all the schools I applied to all of them turned me. But I knew that the idea that I had was still viable and instead of researching it in an academic sense, I knew that if we pivoted just slightly and turn it into a business that I could pursue pursue. In a slightly different way. So, uh, kind of An interesting way to, to get the business started. But that's the true story of how we launched? Well, I

Grant: 

love truth. Yeah, that's excellent. And a lot of, I think a lot of companies start that way. Some people say starting your own business is the school of hard knocks equivalent to a graduate degree. So good for you for not letting failure like that. Or a lack of immense, whatever it is you want to call it stopping you from. Yeah, continuing to move forward and achieve what you think is what is your ma your vision, your dream,

Cameron Owen: 

for sure. Well, I'll tell you looking back I'm very glad that I actually got rejected. Certainly didn't feel that good at the time. But what we've been able to accomplish and the way that we've taken this business I w I wouldn't have it any other way. You never know, there's silver linings in

Grant: 

every. Absolutely. Absolutely. And starting in 2019 to that's pre COVID, that's a, not an easy time to start a business. I'd say, although I think a lot of businesses have sprouted as people have come uh, or kind of addressed a new landscape of business and way to do business.

Cameron Owen: 

So, Well, I'll tell you our official legal launch date was February 10th, 2020. So we, we were just at the, maybe at the wrong time, but in my opinion, definitely more of the right time. So I'm sure we'll talk a little more about that. Yeah.

Grant: 

Well, let's maybe dive into that a little bit. That's a great date, by the way. That's my anniversary. So that's that's my fan of February 10th. Well, let's jump right in there then. So you're building a team. And getting your product development and kind of doing all those things that you have to do with starting a biotech company which in comparison with other companies to start is can be very challenging. So you have to have a lot of experts very early on, whereas some companies, you could start in your garage like apple or something like that, right? It can, it doesn't necessarily need a lot of that expertise, maybe some computer science expertise, but not necessarily. Finances and microbiology and synthetic biology and all those other disciplines that need to be part of the biotech company as you're starting. So tell me about how you started your team. And then let's talk about the stage of company you're at right now.

Cameron Owen: 

Yeah. Sure. And to your point before I answer that question, like a software company or something, if you can go out and recruit, some people buy them all laptops. And of course the swag hoodies and they're good to go, right? In, in life science, health and medicine, there are a lot of other startup barriers that are much harder to overcome uh, Well, I have access, of course. So the, this company was founded by three people myself another co-founder who was a classmate of mine in grad school at Johns Hopkins. And then he introduced me to a contact of his who was a professor of medicine. At UC San Diego. So that's, that was the initial starting team. Again, we were really putting this together in late 20, 20, 19 and into early 20, 20, talking about, okay, there's a lot of things that are happening and will be happening in synthetic biology. What's a niche that we could carve out. How do we go about that process? So there are certainly several months of planning that went into the company before that official February 10th. At launch date since then over the past, I'd say 18 ish months coming up on two years here soon. We've spent really most of our time energy and effort and money as well in the R and D stage doing in the lab doing experiments and things like that where we're at right now. Wrapping up our investigation research. We want to then pivot into more of the commercial side. We've got the science side of what we're doing really perfected and looking good. But now we need to take that into the business side. And so that's where we're at right now and looking to make that translate.

Grant: 

Yeah, that's a very common, I'd say people in our space, they will develop a lot to do product development and then it's time to commercialize it. And that's a whole series of other business challenges you have to overcome and figure out. So yeah, so that's exciting. You're heading into that phase. As you're coming from the lab to launching here. If you could summarize, and there's a lot of lessons learned as you're going through this process, but for anybody else, that's interested in this space or starting their own company as well. You're a couple of years ahead of anybody like that, but what would be some lessons learned that you would share with somebody that's looking to start out or at a similar phase as you are?

Cameron Owen: 

Yeah. I would say. I have an open mind. Anybody you'll hear this from anybody who starts a business, understand that it's not the easiest pathway there's certainly a potential financial upside in creating a successful business. There's no question about that, but there's also a lot of risk. There's also a lot of. Headache and everything that happens there. Anybody who's looking to do, especially a life science business, where there are a lot of hoops to jump through. There are a lot of barriers to entry. There are regulations and things that you have to go through just make sure that you are supremely confident and a hundred percent certain of what your embark. Because if you're not you'll get slapped with reality. Pretty hard, I think.

Grant: 

Yeah. That's good advice. And you mentioned you're you're right now spending a decent amount of capital in the lab and getting your science, the science of things perfected. Before we get into kind of the science side, which I want to jump into a little bit of let's understand the product that you're that you're working on. we hear a lot from people that the number one business challenge they have with life science company is raising capital and getting funding. What's been your experience with that either, lessons learned or approaches you've had that were unique, that helped you get the capital to start rBio and continued the lab.

Cameron Owen: 

Yeah, sure. I would say anybody who tells you that raising money is easy is either incredibly wealthy already or knows an incredibly wealthy person because it's certainly not. Even if you have a lot of good connections and things, it's not the it's not the easiest thing to do. I think we're where we where we succeeded or seen success so far is really just the story. That we're telling we're looking to lower the cost of prescription drugs. Our main target, at least initially is insulin. But even if you're not effectively or directly affected with diabetes or. And that space, somebody who is, I talk to people all day long. We say, oh, my daughter has type one diabetes, or my uncle had tied to for this many years struggled. There's always a story that comes out. So I think from where we saw a lot of the success is just that people understood that. They understood the challenge at a very basic level. And they said, okay, I don't necessarily need to know how you're going about that process because then we're getting into the scientific weeds. And there's a lot of people that are investing money who have no science knowledge. But who understand the problem of, okay, there are some supply chain issues here, or, the cost of insulin is rising. I can't read the news without hearing about people rationing insulin, or, the X number of percentage of increase that it's raised over the past five years. So I think that we were telling a story that really resonates. With people even early on in the business which really helped us, we didn't have to convince anybody that this problem was out there. People already knew it. We're just coming in with some new solutions and finding a new creative options to help solve some of those issues.

Grant: 

Yeah. It's very relatable. You saying, there isn't anybody who hasn't been touched by by diabetes and some for me, I think of my. Family and social circles. And there's a lot, several, that I can say right now that have been impacted by rising insulin or access to it. Yeah, I can understand why that would be having a relatable story. I guess if you boil it down to that concept, can be something that can help with pitching and getting investors interested in what you're trying to do. Make it a personal story, personal level. Very relatable. So let's move into kind of your solution. Then you mentioned a little bit that the problem is obviously. Something understood that we can see a lot, even in headline news. So let's talk about how rBio is different from other synthetic biology companies. And I know you talked about supply chain as well. So talk to me about your unique approach and value prop.

Cameron Owen: 

Yeah, sure. I think the realm of synthetic biology is quite large, that would be like saying, well, tell us how your restaurant is different than another restaurant. There can be a whole myriad and host of factors of why that's the case, for us we're using synthetic biology as a way to increase manufacturing yields of these pharmaceutical compounds. You can go back to the syn bio side. I Hundreds, if not thousands or millions of more applications that could go on there, we just wanted to carve out a niche and really find a problem that we could create a solution for. We've developed some new cell lines and some genetic tricks that can be. For these microbes to be able to manufacture these compounds at much higher yields than what's been previously available. So I would say that's really our competitive advantage, especially if you're looking at something like insulin, which really. It's priced or, should be anyways, more of a commodity. It's not a super specialized drug. We discovered insulin in 1921. That was a hundred years ago. There have been some advances and things that have happened along the way, but we're talking about something that we've known about for a century. We've been able to manufacture, but yet we're having some. These logistical and supply chain issue. How do we solve that? And for us, it's coming through with these new models, these new cell lines to say, all right, well, if it really is just a problem of volume, we need to make a ton more and here's how we're going to do it. Yeah.

Grant: 

So what kind of yields are we talking about? Is it like multiples above what is traditional today or, a certain percentage or what walk me through how your unique approach is addressing the volume.

Cameron Owen: 

Sure. With with a drug like insulin you're, you really are talking about volumes, right? One in 10 people in the United States have diabetes. That's expected to increase the one in five by the end of the decade, which if you really take a moment and think about it is pretty pretty spectacular of the statistics. So yeah, no, we're not talking about something super specialized. We're talking about something pretty generic lead high volume. And I'll come back to your question of what are we looking at in terms. Of yields. I'll hesitate to answer that specifically. And the reason why is because we're wrapping up an investigational research study, not in partnership with Washington university this month. So I've, even though I've seen some of the early days. There are still some things to analyze before we finalize that and put it out into the universe. But I will say that

Grant: 

you're speaking like a true researcher right there. Let's wait for the data to come in and conclusively, and then we'll talk

Cameron Owen: 

For sure. But I will say we aren't, we are looking on a multiple scale, even if it's only a 100% or two X increase of what's available. That's really signifi. Especially when you're talking about some of these high volume medications like insulin, that's.

Grant: 

Yeah. Well, if you say that the stat you shared was pretty staggering, right? One in 10, have a diabetes today in the U S and that'll increase the one in five. So we're to, we're going to need to have a two X increase in the production of insulin. If we're going to meet just that, that medical need right there. I'm

Cameron Owen: 

just talking about the United States here too. We're, we aren't even talked about the rest of the world, as the rest of societies, really start to adopt the Western. And become less healthy like us Americans, that trend is being seen all, all over the world, not just here in the U S so it's really not just a domestic problem. It really is going to be a worldwide problem.

Grant: 

Yeah. And a lot of listeners of this show are in Europe as well. So that's a I'm sure that all of this, what we're saying resonates with them as well. For those who maybe aren't familiar with your approach to encoding microbes and the unique way that you're talking about it. There's an article that we'll link to in the show notes that mentioned you're approaching it like how a computer programmer codes code software. So for those who aren't as familiar with it, help us understand how is that approach different and how can we relate it to something like computers? Yeah,

Cameron Owen: 

sure. Great question. I liked that a lot. That would a lot. So I did my undergrad in Tucson at the university of Arizona. I did it in microbiology. And then at post-college I was dismayed to say the least that there weren't just hundreds and thousands of microbiology jobs just laying out there. I ended up moving to the bay area and got into some tech sales early in my career. So I spent a lot of time in, in high-tech. Hung out with programmers, developers, you name it, anybody that's in that industry. That's the place for it. And I started just, and this is years and years ago just started to think to myself. Okay, well, computer coding is at its core ones and zeros. Biological coding is four letters, a C T, and G can we start to apply those same types of principles into biology? Now keep in mind, 10 years ago, That was like, oh yeah, well, we might get to that point. We probably will, but we're not there yet. Right now. There's a lot of things that need to happen. But before that, and discoveries and things that need to be made now fast forward to 2020, or the end of 2019, and we were in a much better position to release. Start to program and manipulate biology, if you will, to in the same way that you can with computer coding. Recombinant technologies in the past were really more of a cut and paste type of thing. All right. We found this gene here, let's cut it out, paste it into a new organism, get them to express it. And that's how we had it before where you get into like programming biology is you can. And invent new cell lines and really hyper-focused on to do exactly what you want without avoiding or while avoiding some of those, what we call like metabolic side reactions that aren't necessary to what you want to do. So for us, we want these bugs to produce as much insulin as they possibly can. We're not interested if they're going through. They have to, but we're not interested if they go through the Krebs cycle 10 times. If we could avoid that altogether and just hyper-focused them into only making insulin, obviously that, that works best for our business. And that's what it would be needed on a commercial scale. So you can, by starting from scratch, you can really design these things as miniature factories and they're just churning in and pumping out exactly what you want them to do.

Grant: 

Yeah. So in that sense it really is like computer programming. You're creating a micro Cron job or something that has a specific task. And it runs only that task without any of the other, bugs as you call them in the software world or, other side-effects. Yeah, that's fascinating. It sounds for the first time in history, potentially human ambition and technology are starting to intersect. We're really limited in terms of what, as technology advances, we become only limited by the way, in the creative ways we use the application of that technology.

Cameron Owen: 

Sure. I would argue too. I think if you did a poll and asked most people, Hey, what's the most advanced technology that we have as a society, people would probably say something relating to computing. But really the most powerful technology that we have available to us is biology. Mother nature has been spending billions of years to perfect. This we're now here at the very early stages of understanding. What she's created and then taking it to the next step of being able to manipulate that into our own wins. Now you can manipulate it and negatively and bad things can happen. Sure. But you can manipulate it positively in order to solve a lot of these challenges that we have today, for us it's pharmaceutical manufacturing and domestic supply chains, you're really only limited. In terms of applications on your creativity and what you can imagine, really. So we're in a super exciting time. I wake up every day, jumping out of bed. I love what we're working on. I love being alive at this moment because we really already unique crossroads of humanity and I'm just happy to be involved with it really.

Grant: 

Yeah, I love how you said that. So let's think a little bit in the future then, and what are some of the other applications of synthetic biology and kind of what you're doing, on a micro basis? So we're talking about insulin production right now. But if we were to, look into a crystal ball and look five, 10 years in the future, as technology continues to advance, and as your team continues to, learn from your innovative approach what are some of the other applications of this can be applied to outside of pharmacy.

Cameron Owen: 

Sure. All sorts of things, if you get microbes to produce a specific enzyme or protein, that's great. You could, and now we're getting kind of way out there a little bit, if you could program these microbes to make. And then you don't have to grow food and traditional source anymore. You get the bugs to grow for you, Hey, this batch is making this protein or this amino acid at the very end, we put them all together and we've got a good feed source there. That's, it's a little wild to think about, but another one that probably resonates with a lot of people is, can you program these microbes to be carbon sequesters? They just suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, put it, put that carbon source into another form that we can. Do something with, and it just as a way to help solve and combat climate change. You really are only limited in terms of your imagination on what you can create in this way. Because biology unique where if you design the software correctly as software designs, So you don't have to, you don't have to do both. You just have to, you just have to get it right on one front and then, biology just does the rest of the work for you. It's great.

Grant: 

Yeah. Yeah. That sounds awesome. So yeah, that is wild to think about. Producing food that way. Although I bet there's companies out there who are starting unique approach to do that, there's been a lot of innovation in the food production space. A lot of companies coming up around that to, to produce food like you were saying. So another question that just came to mind as you're talking about a lot of the other applications to this the company that produces this podcast quality out we are a software company that makes quality management software for medical devices, life science companies, pharmaceuticals biotech. Our, particularly our customers and there's always this fun kind of balance between quality management and product development or innovation. Sometimes a lot of people see them as opposing forces. But I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you Cameron, about. As the founder, as somebody who's leading and very much in the trenches right now of the, in the lab and in the science of technology of things. How do you think about quality management at this stage of your company being as you're still, I'd say fairly early on in, in launching the company and and how do you maybe see quality being an impact on. Your company's ability to just the industry's ability to continue to evolve, right? Because you have several regulations and things that are making sure that it's safe, what you're producing and everything. Yeah. What are your thoughts on that?

Cameron Owen: 

Sure. I won't jump into the regulatory side cause I've got some strong opinions on some of the regulations that, positive, negative and everything in between, but when it comes to us and what we're doing, quality has to be the number one. The number one thing, especially if you're producing any sort of biological product that people are going to use. Would you want to inject yourself with an insulin bile, if you were even halfway or 10% or even 1% concern that could have some toxic reagents or some issue in it? The answer is no, and we've seen that with some of the vaccine makers, they had some quality control issues and all of this. You don't come back from that, you just shut the lab down and say, all right, well, we missed on that one. For us quality has to be number one over, over everything else, because without it. You don't have anything else? Does that make sense? Yeah, absolutely. So that's how I'd

Grant: 

answer that one. Got it. It's a good answer. We've had some other people on the show who've come on and they say similar things, like you have to focus on quality. Otherwise. It's your left of the product that could be recalled, which would be like everybody's worst nightmare.

Cameron Owen: 

It's another thing. It's one thing, if a car company has a faulty rear view mirror cracks or something that's, but if you're, if you have an injectable drug that's, your main lining, it better be that better, be good to go,

Grant: 

Yeah. People's lives are really at risk at that point, for sure. Yeah. Cameron. I wanted to ask just maybe one last question that running out of time here. Okay. W we spoke a little bit about the how we see different applications to to what you and your team are working on. But I guess overall over the, given the advances we've seen over the last decade plus in biotechnology how do you see from your perspective it continuing to evolve or other. Other applications or things that you see companies solving over the next five, 10 years as the space continues to develop and continues to have additional technology and perhaps even integration into normal consumer's lives.

Cameron Owen: 

Sure. Well, I'll answer that kind of broadly, I would say, bring me a problem and biology. And I know that's painting with very broad brush strokes, but, we really are only limited in what the applications of this are, what we can do with it just simply by our imagination, right out of college, I worked for a rubber producing manufacturer in In Phoenix and, traditionally rubber is made through and via the petrochemical industry, but they were finding a new way to make a synthetic type of rubber using a plant that grew in the arid desert. So there really is only. Limits on what we can think of. Just based on our imagination. Now, I'll tell you what I think is the most interesting. If nothing else, a thing that we can look at is a concept called mirror life. Where you could, you and I could be the exact same person, but all of our genetics and metabolic processes happen in reverse. I think that's wildly, science fiction and, but what can you do with that? What applications could exist with that type of technology now, I don't know. I'm pretty focused on, on what we're doing here. And at the time I haven't had time to explore that too much, but my goodness, anybody who's in this space or has a deeper understanding of biology just in general. We really are at a really interesting time. And so to answer your question, the next five to 10 years, man, who knows. Really, there's a lot of smart people out there doing a lot of really interesting and intriguing things. And I think like I said, I think we could solve all of the problems using synthetic biology. But of course I am a little biased when I say that. Yeah.

Grant: 

Yeah. Wait, I'm excited, man. Talking to you makes me feel excited about the space, excited to keep watching it. Appreciate you coming in and sharing your story. And excitement for what you're doing and just the space overall. For people that want to follow you or follow your company, where can they go to find you?

Cameron Owen: 

Sure. So you can look at us on any of the socials, rBio, just to let her R followed by bio we've got, the LinkedIn, the Twitter pages, people can reach out to me directly. My email Cameron at RBS. Dot online. I'm always happy to connect with anybody and everybody. And I'll tell you a grant, I think in five years, you should invite me back on the show here. And we could talk about what has happened over the course of that time and take a look back. I think that would be, that'd be fun to do. Yeah, let's

Grant: 

do it. Yeah. In five years, we'll put a mark on the calendar right now.

Cameron Owen: 

Definitely

Grant: 

26. Yup. Okay. Well, Hey Cameron, thank you again so much for joining the show today. We'll link to all those things you mentioned in the show notes. So if anybody wants to follow along and reach out if you have any ideas or anything, really, you seem like really open guy. People reach out to you through the show notes and we'll link to that. So thank you again for joining and we're excited to follow your story and just wish you all the best as you continue to innovate

Cameron Owen: 

thanks for having me. It's always fun to talk about what we're working on here.