We sat down with Dr. Sleight, founder and CEO of Sleight Beer Lab to learn about his new business and the role that SoundBio has played in it.
Can you tell us a little about your background and why you decided to become an entrepreneur?
I moved to Seattle in 2007 after I earned my PhD in microbiology and molecular genetics from Michigan State to pursue a post-doc in Dr. Sauro’s lab at the University of Washington. While at UW, I studied a variety of things, including the evolutionary stability of genetic circuits and developing novel DNA assembly methods for synthetic biology. This work led to a job at Matrix Genetics where I was a manager in their synthetic biology group. We were responsible for developing synthetic biology techniques used to genetically alter bacterial strains. At the time I was an avid homebrewer and interested in pursuing brewing science as a possible career path. Matrix Genetics ended up closing shop, so I decided that was as good a time as any to start a business.
Without SoundBio, what were the key barriers that would've prevented you from being able to attempt your project?
Everything! Rent, lab space, and of course equipment. I would have had to pay thousand(s) a month to have a lab space because a standard office space wasn’t an option. It needed to be a lab….so really, it was the only financially viable option that included access to lab equipment.
What impact from your Sleight Brewing work are you most proud of during your time running it at SoundBio?
Finding a unique yeast strain that other people can use to make great beer. I can now go to a brewery, order a beer, and know that it was fermented with my own strain. That is very exciting and cool. It was possible because I could do brewing science at SoundBio.
How did SoundBio help with your transition between jobs?
SoundBio played a huge role! It allowed me to make a modest income after my unemployment ran out and to pursue a brewing science hobby at the same time. It meant I did not have to move out of the city or take a horrible job, just to pay the bills. It gave me some breathing room, and a runway of sorts, to take time to assess a new market (without a huge upfront financial investment that required investors). It was really an unknown entity, starting this business. As I see it, there were two options:
1) develop a hot new technology and then go after investors...or
2) leverage my science background, do something I know how to do & make money immediately
The 2nd choice was obvious given my financial constraints. There was too much risk and uncertainty with option 1, not to mention the time frame would likely be years.
How, if at all, did being connected to and interacting with the SoundBio community (its members and others who would drop in from time to time) help you on your project?
I received a lot of moral support, particularly from Mike, a SoundBio co-founder. He offered a lot of encouragement. Zach was also very interested and supportive. I felt like SoundBio was taking a bit of chance on this project and new business. They could have said no, but instead, SoundBio embraced the unknown, and I am tremendously thankful for it.
Little things in the lab made a difference: I was given specific equipment training (as needed) and both Zach and Yoshi were great sounding boards to bounce ideas off of. So it’s really a combination of moral support, and having some technical expertise that was most helpful.
What are some ways that SoundBio could improve its ability to enable more entrepreneurs in the future?
It’s actually pretty amazing already, what’s going on at the lab. I have no real complaints and there were no specific barriers that prevented me from doing anything for my business, Sleight Beer Lab, so any feedback would be minor. One issue that could be improved is scheduling of large groups. It did get crowded sometimes when there were 12 iGEM kids in the lab, so knowing that schedule ahead of time would be helpful, but I fully recognize that it’s a community lab and it will get busy.
SoundBio is a community of amateur and professional science enthusiasts dedicated to providing access to biotechnology, equitable science education, and supporting the next generation of young scientists. How does Sleight Beer Lab both benefit from, and help support SoundBio’s mission?
By using SoundBio’s lab space, I was able to start a business with very little upfront risk at a fraction of the cost. My business never could never have existed without SoundBio Lab.
Broadly speaking, SoundBio allowed me to use my wet-lab skills to help bring biotechnology to the brewing industry - to solve real world problems. So I think this clearly made an impact, and benefited my clients who are not trained in genetics, microbiology, or fermentation analysis of yeast strains. It is also exciting to know that through my work in the lab, I was able to identify and share new, robust yeast strains that can used to ferment high quality beer - for many others to enjoy! I learned recently that one brewery in Seattle is now using my yeast as their house strain.
I also taught a workshop on yeast, which was fun to do, and I think benefited many homebrewers in the area.
I did my best to give back to the SoundBio community directly by teaching others. I love that SoundBio welcomes and accepts amateur scientists (not just professionals). During the past year, I helped train 2 interns, teaching them molecular biology and microbiology as related to the beer industry. This was done in part because it’s fun to give back (once you know something, teaching is fun), but also because it was great to see so much enthusiasm for my work. It was mutually beneficial and is part of the culture at SoundBio.