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.

Quotes from Participants

It is amazing how much happened in one day. You had us do more than talk about ideas, we actually demonstrated that we can work together to solve the challenges.

—Beth Vitalis

It seems really good to have more conferences like this, where there's a shared interest but everybody comes from different fields so it's less obviously hierarchal.

—excerpt from Linch Zhang's writeup


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.

Jane Metcalfe and Maria Chavez have a Long Conversation.

These three Long Conversations were:

How can we steer towards a good future for biotechnology?

How should the biological sciences handle potentially dangerous research ideas?

How can we productively discuss the risks from biotechnology?

Design Jam

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

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

Design Jam Groups

Each design jam group was led by a host or hosts with knowledge of the problem area.
How can we mitigate the risks of using self-determination to regulate genome edited plants?
Lea Witkowsky, Innovative Genomics Institute
How might we measure "success" in developing a culture of responsibility in biotech?
Daniel Greene and Connor Hoffman, Stanford CISAC
How can we create a secure system of archival data storage using synthetic DNA as the storage medium?
Kari McInturff and Todd Piantedosi, FBI
How can we use non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to strengthen our resilience in the face of a potential global catastrophic biological risk?
Chris Bakerlee, Harvard University
How can we deal with state-sponsored propoganda and disinformation campaigns related to biosecurity and public health incidents/issues
Matt Ellison, Stanford University
How can infrastructure of different communities be made more transparent and inclusive of scientific advice by governments?
Heather Tanner, Counter Culture Labs
How should we be developing medical countermeasures for emerging biosecurity risks?
James Wagstaff, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
Synbio in the Wild: Policies for release, both accidental and intentional, in the iGEM context
Ronit Langer and Ricardo Chavez, After iGEM
How might we utilize DIYBio labs to aid in biosecurity?
Elliot Roth, Co-Founder and CEO, Spira

Talks & Workshops

Throughout the day, we heard from both invited speakers and participants who had proposed talks in their application.

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

Featured Talks

Lightning Talks

Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology
Tom Slezak, CEO of KPATH Scientific (Slides)
Measuring Cultures of Responsibility in the Life Sciences
given by Daniel Greene, Stanford University (Slides)
Biosecurity Challenges in the Genome Engineering Space
given by Beth Vitalis, Biosecurity Specialist at Inscripta (Slides)
The Germy Paradox: Why haven't we seen more biological weapons?
given by Georgia Ray, George Mason University (Slides)
Modeling platform diagnostics for novel pathogen pandemics
given by Cassidy Nelson, Research Scholar at the Future of Humanity Institute
Broad-spectrum antivirals: an essential tool for biosecurity
given by Jassi Pannu, Resident Physician at Stanford University
Medical IOT: Defending the Impossible
given by Nina Alli, Executive Directory of DefCon Biohacking Village
Genetic Engineering Attribution: New results and implications for deliberate technology development
given by Ethan Alley, MIT Media Lab


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. You can read our retrospective on organising this event on the Effective Altruism Forum.

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.