a collaborative biosecurity summit

February 22, 2020

The Laundry, San Francisco

Group shot of all 100 participants in Catalyst.

Why Catalyst?

Biotechnology is moving fast. Many futures are possible. It's time to work together. We believe biotechnology will reshape our world in the decades to come, and that we must guide the coming changes with intention and forethought. At Catalyst, we aimed to:

  • Bring together a broad range of people invested in the future of biotechnology, including synthetic biologists, policymakers, academics, and biohackers.
  • Acknowledge that when it comes to questions this large, people of good faith can disagree, and to try to find common ground amidst those disagreements.
  • Create a space for sharing perspectives, building connections, and sparking collaboration.

We hope the Catalyst community will continue to work together to engineer a future enhanced by biology and not endangered by it.

The Summit

At Catalyst, we created an environment for around 100 participants to explore creative solutions to emerging biological risks. The summit featured a combination of conversations, workshops, talks, and structured problem-solving. It was free to attend for those accepted by application, and we provided travel support for a number of participants who required it, so that finances wouldn’t be an obstacle to attending.

Long Conversations

Jane Metcalfe and Maria Chavez have a Long Conversation.

The summit started and ended in conversation. The Long Conversation format uses a relay of dialogues around a shared prompt, where each speaker has an unscripted, one-on-one conversation with the speaker before them, and then speaks with the next participant before rotating off. These conversations were:

Design Jam

A group of four Catalyst participants sitting around a table and discussing a design jam problem.

Every participant in Catalyst joined a small group for a guided brainstorming session on an open problem at the intersection of biotechnology and society. These problems included:

  • How can we mitigate the risks of using self-determination to regulate genome edited plants?
    hosted by Lea Witkowsky, Innovative Genomics Institute
  • How can we use non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to strengthen our resilience in the face of a potential global catastrophic biological risk?
    hosted by Chris Bakerlee, Harvard University
  • How might we measure "success" in developing a culture of responsibility in biotech?
    hosted by Daniel Greene and Connor Hoffman, Stanford CISAC

According to our exit survey, the participants found the design jam to be the most valuable part of day, aside from the conversations they had with each other.

Talks and Workshops

Jassi Pannu answers questions after her talk on broad-spectrum antivirals.

Throughout the day, we heard from both invited speakers and participants who had proposed talks in their application, on topics such as:

  • Broad-Spectrum Antivirals: An essential tool for biosecurity, Jassi Pannu, Stanford Medicine
  • A metagenomic perspective on ecology, biosecurity, and public health, Joshua Batson, Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub
  • Workshop on Technologies to Address Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, Tara Kirk Sell, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security


The Catalyst organizers sitting together in the group photo.

Catalyst was co-organized by Brian Wang, Tessa Alexanian, Jeffrey Ladish, Cody Wild, Megan Crawford, and Finan Adamson, a team which grew out of the East Bay Biosecurity Group organizers.

The conference was supported by a grant from the Effective Altruism Long Term Future Fund, and the organizers are grateful to our advisory team of Dr. Megan Palmer, Dr. Kevin Esvelt, and Dr. Jun Axup.

Are you interested in organizing your own event on the future of biotechnology or biosecurity? We’d love to chat— send us an email.