In Conversation with Renee Wegrzyn

The Evolving World of Biosecurity

Renee Wegrzyn
Renee Wegrzyn
VP of Business Development
Concentric by Ginkgo

There are few corners of the earth that were not affected by COVID-19 pandemic. Even wealthy countries like the U.S. were left woefully unprepared for the scale and the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, bringing the need for better pandemic preparedness to public attention.

Renee Wegrzyn, vice president of business development at Concentric by Ginkgo, was more prepared than most. Starting out as an applied biologist with a BSc and PhD from Georgia Institute of Technology, she has worked in the biosecurity arena for over a decade.

Prior to starting at Ginkgo Bioworks, Wegrzyn was a program manager at the U.S. Government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and before starting there she helped advise DARPA and other government agencies by providing scientific and strategic support.

Concentric is a new spin-off from Gingko Bioworks with a particular focus on biosecurity. Already a player in the biosecurity space, the founding of Concentric by Gingko seemed a natural step following on from work done during the pandemic.

Wegrzyn spoke to Inside Precision Medicine senior editor, Helen Albert, about her inspirations, lessons learned from the pandemic, the importance of biosecurity and pathogen surveillance and about her new role as head of innovation at Concentric.

 

Q: You started your career in academic science. What attracted you to working in industry?

I did my PhD at Georgia Tech, which is officially in applied biology. So even though I was working on molecular genetics, and working with a model system, the outlook was always how is it going to be implemented in the real world. This was something that was taught to me from a very early stage in my career, and I didn’t really know any different.

I did a postdoc in academia as well and I brought this knowledge  to industry. I worked with various diagnostic companies really applying some of that knowledge on protein folding and protein folding disorders. I really focused on those types of challenges, but taking that fundamental knowledge and innovation of ‘what do we know about protein folding that can help us develop a totally new type of diagnostic?’ That was really connecting my academic work to real products and was an exciting thing that that I just wanted to keep doing, whether it was as a funder, at DARPA, or here at Concentric working with our customers and the ecosystem.

 

Q: What made you want to work at DARPA and in biosecurity?

I had never heard of DARPA, actually, when I was first in industry, but the CEO of the small company that I worked for used to be a DARPA program manager. He started to tell me about this amazing place called DARPA, where you were very well resourced, but were able to take bets and do high risk research. It didn’t always pan out, but when it did was usually very high reward and could really move the stake in the ground in whatever field that was.

When I saw the writing on the wall that maybe my company wouldn’t be around forever, I actually then interviewed with the different consulting companies that were advising DARPA. Once I became an advisor to DARPA, I took on a fellowship and I was part of the inaugural fellowship class of the emerging leaders in biosecurity initiative.

At the time, the Center for Biosecurity, which is now the Center for Health Security, at Johns Hopkins University, was a very small program, there were maybe 20 of us in the first year. People who were in this ecosystem of biology and national security wanted to have a program to say, ‘Okay, what does that mean in the context of Washington and governments?’ and so that was really eye opening.

Biosecurity still is a small community, but it was even smaller then. That program gave us access to leaders in the Pentagon, leaders in the White House, leaders in health and human services, and access to how they were thinking about engineered biology and national security, and that just blew my mind. I found out there’s this whole other world and this created a sense of urgency for me.

 

Q: Why is biosecurity important?

A great analogy is personal computers and distributed computation. The internet was pushed out very early and quickly with incredible gains, but it wasn’t until about 20 years later that  the vulnerabilities  posed by cyber threats were really recognized. Then we started to try to implement cybersecurity and we’ve been trying to catch up for decades now. We’re still in very early stages for engineered biology, but I think now there’s an urgency to build biosecurity into programs.

I think the last two years has shown us why we need biosecurity. I would say that if you asked me that question two years ago, I feel like I would have had to convince people, but the one silver lining from this pandemic is that people get this is incredibly powerful biology. In this case, a natural threat that actually had major economic and travel consequences and a massive death toll.

Ginkgo’s biosecurity business
Concentric by Ginkgo, Ginkgo’s biosecurity business, sequences positive samples [Kris eng/Ginkgo Bioworks]

But I think it has also brought a realization that there are going to be other threats that come forward, like agricultural threats, for example. Happening at the same time as the COVID 19 pandemic is an outbreak of high path, avian influenza in the United States. African swine fever, where we don’t have a medical countermeasure or a vaccine, there’s an outbreak in the Caribbean. And the solution to deal with that, of course, is to cull those pigs that have been infected. And that would be devastating if that came to the United States.

We can’t be reactive to things like that, because the reaction causes massive consequences. We want to be proactive and recognize and detect those threats. Whether they’re natural or engineered, many of the same systems are going to be used to respond to them. And so, I would argue very strongly that that we can’t move forward without biosecurity.

 

Q: Why did you leave DARPA and what attracted you to come to work for Gingko?

DARPA is a term appointment organization. One of the things I think that gets people so motivated at DARPA is because the day you start your clock is ticking and your countdown timer is going down. You’re going to need to leave the organization, typically within three to five years. At the end of the day, I was technically on the books for four and a half years.

I started at Ginkgo during the pandemic in August 2020, but that was not the first time I encountered the company. I’ve known Gingko for a very long time. Even before the pandemic it was deeply vested in biosecurity. I think the founders and their early team members understood that this powerful engineered biology technology also needs biosecurity. Key members of that founding team and early folks like Patrick Boyle, were often in Washington at meetings and policy discussions around biosecurity too, because they saw we needed to be talking about this now.

Gingko has an annual conference called Ferment, where they bring together people in their ecosystem. I participated a few years ago as a speaker, talking about some of the work that we were doing at DARPA thinking about the future of engineered biology and genome editing and how industry was going to play a role. It was great to participate in that event a few years ago. When it came time to having to look at what’s next, Gingko, for me, was a really natural fit.

I love engineered biology. And I see a future where that really solves so many of the world’s challenges from health to climate, but also paired with thinking about biosecurity, so it was just a pretty natural transition from the work I had been passionate about at DARPA.

 

Q: Why did Gingko decide to found Concentric?

Early in the pandemic, our CEO and leadership team made the decision to stop everything and just acknowledge this is a biological event of our lifetimes. This is very powerful biology. They said ‘we’ve talked a lot about biosecurity as a company, well, now it’s time to do something.’ Jason Kelly opened up access to Ginkgo’s foundry to people that needed it, whether it was an engineered antibody, or something along the lines of raw materials for mRNA vaccines. It was a very public discussion of some of the work that came out of using the foundry.

The other piece that built out of that, which ultimately became Concentric, was testing at scale. Ginkgo’s really good at high throughput and scale. We thought about how to do that outside the building for testing. A team got together and started to work on that problem. We built business partnerships with labs across the country to help deliver testing, but what we designed was a validated, pooled classroom test. We wanted to help schools get open, we saw that as an urgent unmet need.

We made a pooled classroom test where you do one molecular test [PCR] for a classroom, that’s more cost efficient at the per student level. Most of the time it’s negative, but if there is a positive, then we can do a deconvolution of that test. That is what Concentric really was focused on for a long time was K12 testing.

Once that was operating at scale, we took a step back and saw what we built here is actually a platform. Not unique to SARS-CoV-2, but we could do other pathogens, we could also do other settings.

The first thing that we did in another setting was bringing that lab network and scaled testing and pooled testing to an airport. We brought in our partners Express Check, who had access to those airports and could collect those samples on the ground, and then started a partnership with the CDC, who could help direct us and we shared that genomic surveillance with them.

 

Q: What influence has the pandemic had on the take-up of biosecurity and pathogen surveillance measures?

There is, I think, a greater understanding of what it is and why it’s important. But I think we have to balance that with a little bit of testing fatigue that we’re seeing. One of the ways that we’re dealing with that is passive monitoring. And what I mean by passive is something that’s happening in the background, I don’t have to be taking a swab in your nose every week, but passive monitoring, like wastewater testing, or air monitoring.

Maybe for some time, all we will need is passive monitoring. If we start to see an uptick in infections, we can transition you to a program where we can start to do more regular testing, if you should need it. That flexibility moving forward is going to be really key to ensure that you’re delivering the right solution for the right situation that you’re facing.

 

Q: What’s next for Concentric once the pandemic is officially over?

We can have an end to end offering for a given entity, which I think is really critical. It’s just easy to work with us because we’ve filled in all those gaps for folks. We’ve recently announced, ‘okay, we’re in airports, we’re in schools, we have this testing platform, let’s start to layer on new threats.’ Monkeypox, of course, has been in the news as a as a growing epidemic. And we’re ramping up our capability to allow us to be able to look at other sample types like wastewater, but then also look at other pathogens.

That’s really our vision for the future. Fast forward 5, 10, 15 years from now, we’re able to test for many, many different things, in different types of environments and samples, so that we can really be ready for what’s next. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to be surprised and then have to play catch up. With the muscle of the Gingko foundry behind us, we have the ability to make new sensors, new tests that we want to then bring forward and push into this scaled marketplace that we’ve developed.

We had the airport program in place during the Delta surge. When the first case of Omicron popped up in South Africa, we just did a small pivot and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to start picking up more flights from Africa and Europe because that’s where we’re seeing the first cases.’ This allowed us to be in position to pick up the first U.S. cases of BA.2 and BA.3, we didn’t have to start a new program from scratch. It was a small tweak, so that we could be responsive, but not have to rebuild. That was a really exciting proof of concept. That’s what we’d like to repeat as we go forward, not only domestically but something that we’re working to build out internationally as well.

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