The lure of free cookies altered Jason Fontana’s career path.
At the time, Jason was finishing up his bachelor’s degree in Biomolecular Science and Technologies in his homeland of Italy and was on his way to becoming a cancer geneticist. He had a summer internship lined up with a professor who was researching the P53 tumor protein.
The Lure of Cookies—and Synthetic Biology
“One day, I walked into this room where they were offering free cookies to come to see this presentation about iGEM,” Jason recalls. “The iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition is where undergrads and graduate students work for a summer trying to make a bacterium or a cell or do something cool. That’s the whole idea—to do something cool. I thought, ‘Oh, this is interesting! I’m going to give up my cancer internship, and I’m going to do this instead!’”
For iGEM, the worldwide synthetic biology competition, Jason and fellow student Daniele Rossetto engineered a bacterium for removing the black residue left behind by smog from outdoor statues and the exterior of buildings. They discussed their creation along with those submitted by teams participating in the iGEM competition at a TEDx Talk in 2013.
From iGEM to Wayfinder Biosciences
The iGEM competition launched Jason into the world of synthetic biology and molecular engineering. After iGEM, he went on to earn a master’s degree in Cellular and Molecular Biotechnologies from the University of Trento. He came to the United States on an F-1 visa to attend the University of Washington (UW), where he earned another master’s degree in Molecular Engineering and went on to complete his Ph.D. and post-doctoral research in the field. At UW, Jason met David Sparkman-Yager, who was also doing his doctoral and post-doctoral work in the same department.
“I was building cells using CRISPR tools and had no way to measure them,” Jason recalls. “David said, ‘Hey, I’m working with RNA, why don’t we put these together?’, and that clicked.”
This year, Jason and David co-founded Wayfinder Biosciences Inc., a biotech company that has developed novel RNA technologies that accelerate sustainable biomanufacturing. The duo has developed nano-scale sensors made of RNA for screening cells that produce high-value compounds. These biosensors light up when they detect the desired molecules, allowing the company to speed up the essential measurements needed in biotech by orders of magnitude. As the company grows, Jason and David realized that they are doing to measurement what CRISPR has done to genetic engineering: making it fast, precise, and high-throughput.
Jason and David started the company in San Francisco to be close to venture capital and biotech hubs. Wayfinder has already received an investment from SOSV, a venture capital firm, and is a member of SOSV’s IndieBio accelerator program.
Words of Wisdom
With perseverance and planning, “it’s possible to become a successful immigrant startup founder,” Jason says. “If you can, put some money away to deal with the bumps along the road if they happen.” He says he was fortunate to have a family who helped support him when he couldn’t work for four months because his OPT (Optional Practical Training) hadn’t come through yet.
Jason emphasizes the importance of cultivating “a whole system of people who really care about making sure you succeed, such as your immigration (legal) team and investors. They know that people come from abroad with great ideas that can help the U.S. economy and the startup ecosystem. These people are valuable resources who can really help you.”