A Failed Biotech Startup Story That Promised a Light-emitting Plant

Inside the Glowing-Plant Startup That Just Gave up Its Quest. Taxa Biotechnologies promised a light-emitting plant that could replace street lamps. Here’s why that project failed.

own in a basement along bustling Third Street in San Francisco’s SoMa startup district, Antony Evans unzipped a black tent. It’s the same kind of tent that marijuana growers use, he told me. But it was heavy, earthy patchouli, not skunk, that hit me when I stepped inside the brightly lit cube. Petri dishes piled high on a table contain clusters of green moss.

Evans had invited me to stop by his lab in late January. He was excited to share his latest news. After four years of false starts and failed plants, his startup Taxa Biotechnologies was now two months away from finally shipping its first product, a patchouli-scented moss. By the end of March, up to 1,000 units of the perfumed moss would be ready for purchase as a novelty in small terrariums, costing buyers roughly $50 to $80 a pop.

Except that as Evans announced in a blog post last night, the moss turned out to be contaminated. It was unsafe to ship, and its replacement wouldn’t be ready until July, he wrote. But he had even bigger news to share. When he first launched his project as a Kickstarter campaign in 2013, his goal was to sell plants that glowed in the dark. The moss endeavor was just a more achievable goal that would help Taxa make ends meet and fund research on the light-emitting plants. Now, however, the glowing plant project is officially dead.

“We’re sorry to say that we have reached a significant transition point,” he wrote in yesterday’s post. Because he wasn’t able to ship the patchouli moss on time, Taxa “had to reduce the size of the team to ensure we have enough financial runway to ship the moss, and this has meant stopping the work we were doing on higher plants to focus on the moss.”

The glowing plant project is not just any old failed Kickstarter campaign. After going live on the crowdfunding site, Evans’ project quickly became the poster child of the unwarranted hype and hysteria around DNA engineering. Evans and his team hadn’t shown they could produce even a single glowing plant, and yet they managed to rake in $484,000 in orders, far exceeding their $65,000 goal. The campaign also triggered a firestorm of criticism. People worried that biohackers like Evans were opening up a Pandora’s box of genetic freaks, potentially corrupting the world for good. They fretted that the plants might spread to the outside world and become an invasive species.

Rattled by the onslaught of negative publicity, Kickstarter banned any future synthetic biology projects. Evans was surprised by the reaction, but undeterred. What better way to change the public’s mind than to let it see a glowing plant firsthand?

As he tinkered with his plants in the years that followed, the controversy over synthetic biology continued to mount. AntiGMO activists grew more vocal. With the emergence of the powerful genome editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, tools for DIY bioengineering seemed to be at the fingertips of any capable amateur. Finally, genomes could be rearranged and rewritten just like software. The biological world was yielding itself to hackers.

But as 2014, 2015, and 2016 ticked by, Evans faced a different reality. He could barely get his plants to glow at all. Taxa Biotechnologies was running out of money. A cofounder quit. What had seemed scientifically straightforward had turned into a lonely, multi-year slog.

So he changed tack, setting aside the glowing plants and throwing his energies behind scented moss instead. By mid-2016, the company had grown patchouli moss that Evans considered ready for consumers. At last he could start planning for a product launch, and he picked the week of March 27, 2017. Evans had summoned me to his lab to help him tell his redemption story. He’d show the world just how amazing bioengineering could be.

Except…he didn’t. Instead, he ended up killing off the four-year-old dream that he’d shared and nurtured with his thousands of supporters.

I met Evans at Taxa’s home base, a chaotic mix of office and lab in a coworking space that the company shares with a few other startups. Every surface was covered with books and scientific equipment. It was clear he’d been there awhile. He was stoic but direct with his answers to my questions as he led me down flights of stairs to the basement grow tent.

Evans got the idea for his glowing plant project while searching for a way to cut his teeth in the field of synthetic biology. He had no prior biology experience, but plenty of vision. In 2011 he’d moved to Silicon Valley and attended the graduate studies program at Singularity University, a tech think tank at NASA Research Park, about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco. Singularity University preaches the potential of exponential technologies: areas where performance is increasing rapidly alongside steep drops in price. Evans learned aboutthe concept of a circular economy—a society that meets all its needs from sustainable sources. He became hooked on the idea of the sun as the foundation of a circular economy, by virtue of the physical matter it allows you to grow.

“As soon as you recognize the only truly sustainable technology is biology, it’s obvious that synthetic biology, which is the technology that allows us to harness biology for our own good, is a thing we need to embrace,” Evans says.

At a Singularity alumni event, he met biochemist and entrepreneur Omri Amirav-Drory, who had founded a synthetic-biology software company called Genome Compiler. Amirav-Drory suggested setting up a Kickstarter to fund a glowing plant. As early as 1986, scientists at the University of California-San Diego had demonstrated a plant that emitted light — a tobacco plant with a firefly gene inserted. If the technology was already three decades old, surely there was a way to mass-produce and commercialize light-emitting plants. Evans’ thoughts raced ahead, and he imagined replacing electricity with hacked plants. Roads could be lit with glowing trees instead of street lamps. Small plants that could act as indoor night lights felt like a real first step.

Evans started hanging out at the biohacking space Biocurious just east of NASA Research Park, where he met and pitched the idea to Kyle Taylor, a Stanford biology graduate student. Together they started tinkering with a plant from the mustard family known as Arabidopsis.

Emboldened by their first attempts to design DNA they believed would make a plant glow, they turned to Kickstarter. For $40 backers would receive glowing plant seeds the very next year. To the team’s surprise, the crowdfunding campaign got 8,433 orders and raised almost half a million dollars. The media covered it heavily. “Replace your lights with these genetically engineered glow-plants” a 2013 Popular Science headline read.

“Right after the Kickstarter there was a lot of optimism and excitement,” Evans says. “It took many months for the reality of how hard this was going to be to settle in.”

They were trying to insert six genes found in naturally bioluminescent ocean bacteria into an Arabidopsis plant’s genome. All cells, including Arabidopsis’s, naturally contain molecules that, when combined with those six genes, kick off a chemical reaction that emits light.

Once they had created the gene sequence in a software program, they ordered it from a supplier online. Evans likened it to ordering a custom T-shirt: You upload the gene sequence as a text file and pay for the order with your credit card.

Not long after, the real-life version of the genes showed up in the mail. In a September 2013 video on YouTube, Taylor holds up the box that had arrived from FedEx. “I’ve been anxiously waiting to open this all day,” he says with a slight smile before ripping the cardboard open. A DVD-sized box tumbles out, inside of which are five tiny tubes of DNA.

They started growing their first plants. When those plants matured, they harvested their seeds and grew those, too. Some lived and some died, but none glowed as brightly as the team originally hoped. The best specimens were dimly visible in a dark room, nowhere near the luminescence of the ocean bacteria that Evans had come to believe was possible.

About a year after the Kickstarter, Taxa (at the time it still went by its original name, Glowing Plant) applied for Y Combinator and was accepted into the first batch to include biotech startups, receiving the $120,000 in seed funding that accompanies the program. The famed accelerator was interested in the development of a platform for quickly creating bioengineered organisms. Evans was fine with the shift in vision. He says working with plants involves a lot of waiting, so it always made sense for the company to have multiple projects going at once.

But the slow, unrelenting struggle to make plants glow took its toll. In early 2015, Taylor left the company. Evans, running out of money, returned to crowdfunding. This time he launched a campaign on Wefunder, a website that allows anyone to invest in startups, immediately after the site became legal under a provision of the JOBS Act in May 2016. Taxa’s slick campaign page makes no mention of the technical difficulties, and includes a videotouting fragrant moss as “market-ready.” As the video zooms in from the Golden Gate Bridge to the window of a house, the words “Introducing the bioengineered home of the future” float across the screen in white letters. A woman bites into a caffeinated apple (“concept”) while sitting at a table decorated with ever-blooming flowers (“under contract”).

In a voiceover, Evans says: “To preserve tomorrow, we should take from the Earth only that which we can return.” More than 500crowd investors plunked down $300,000 in support.

In the mid-aughts, biotech was booming. Companies pursued medicines and even biofuels, buoyed by the success of synthetic biology. Then the Great Recession hit, taking the life out of much of the tech industry. Biotech companies sold off their equipment. The fire sale enabled another group to emerge: scientists and DIYers building labs on the cheap.

“Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature, and that changes the game,” DNA printing startup Cambrian Genomics founder Austen Heinz told the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2015. “And that creates a whole new world.”

But around that same time Taxa was facing the reality that bioengineering isn’t always as simple as cutting and pasting DNA. Having struggled with Arabidopsis, Taxa shifted to working on glowing tobacco plants, to more closely mimic the 1986 research paper. But tobacco plants have the equivalent of organs and blood vessels—a complex structure that isn’t naturally suited to glowing. Taxa didn’t realize the extent of alterations it would take to make a plant glow intensely.

“Everyone knew a dimly glowing plant was possible because it had been done before,” Evans said in an email. “But we did split opinions based on both the hype we generated (as we had no evidence to suggest the longterm claims of replacing street lamps) and whether it was a good idea for so much funding to go to an independent group like ours.”

As his team struggled with the tobacco plant, Evans started thinking about much simpler organisms. A University of Cambridge team piqued his interest by developing a plant that smelled like raspberry. But then he scheduled a meeting with a University of Copenhagen scientist who described producing moss that smelled like patchouli. Moss has a far simpler structure than tobacco plants and requires the altering of a single gene to emit a different fragrance. The moment Evans walked into the Copenhagen lab and smelled the prototype version of patchouli moss, he knew Taxa could make a commercial version. “We had to make many genetic changes to that moss to make it a consumer product, but clearly it would work,” Evans says

For once, progress came easily.The early moss samples grown in their lab smelled like patchouli. By January of this year, the specimens in the growing tent were doubling every three weeks. In the company’s conference room, I held a petri dish of moss up to my nose and sniffed. The smell was a bit fainter than that of a flower, making it more of a curiosity than a room freshener. Evans said he’ll pick up on the scent when he first walks into a room, and then it fades into the background.

But despite Evans’ confidence just a few months ago, Taxa didn’t hit its March 27 ship date. A strain of moss resistant to herbicides had contaminated the moss he intended to sell, meaning that if it made the leap into the wild it could resist extermination. Evans now estimates it will ship sometime between July and September.

Four years after Evans and his partners launched their Kickstarter, the world is still navigating its relationship with synthetic biology. The fears inspired by the glowing plant are resurfacing with the rise of the unprecedentedly precise and easy-to-use CRISPR genome editing system. There’s even an Indiegogo campaign promising a DIY CRISPR kit. Though stories are pouring out about CRISPR’s potential to cure cancer, sickle cell disease and so much more, it’s not ready for primetime, either. Years of testing lie ahead.

Ryan Bethencourt, a venture partner and program director at San Francisco biotech accelerator IndieBio, argues that failure is part of the biotech story. IndieBio has been investing in early-stage synthetic biology startups since 2014. “It’s like alien technology — technology we partially understand,” he says. “But once you understand it, it’s transformational.”

Before looking at business potential, Bethencourt says the team does a deep dive into the science behind a startup — but even then, the risk can be high. “Biotech is still hard. It’s still complex,” he says. “There might actually be reasons why you can’t make something happen, even though it seems reasonable. There is always potential for failure.”

Evans, meanwhile, just wants to see his work make it into people’s homes. He hopes that products like fragrant moss will help people see the connection between synthetic biology and a more sustainable future, as opposed to assuming that bioengineering will wreck the planet. But as he experienced with his contaminated moss this past winter, the line between safe and unsafe bioengineering is easily blurred. And that’s assuming a biohacker can get his or her modified plant to work as envisioned in the first place. His confidence in being the one to deliver synthetic biology to the home seems shaken.

Evans wrapped up his Kickstarter update with an apology. “I’m sorry that we’ve let you down on delivering the Glowing Plant,” he wrote. “I hope though that despite that failure the project can still leave a positive legacy in inspiring people to learn more about synthetic biology and its benefits — and hopefully one day someone does finally make a Glowing Pla

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