Gap Summit: Ecuadorians building a leadership trail in Biotechnology
Biotechnology is considered one of the careers of the future. Therefore, it is common to hear about advances in this discipline and their impact on our lives. We might mistakenly think that biotechnological applications are exclusive to the First World, with the necessary resources and talents limited to their geographies. However, the reality is that our country, Ecuador, has talented researchers and developers in biosciences, with the potential to lead transformation processes.
A clear example of this is the outstanding participation of compatriots in the Biotechnology Gap Summit, an annual world-class event, with the main objective of discussing those key gaps around the Bioeconomy and catalyzing innovation to solve challenges facing Biotechnology Development.
The focus of the summit is intergenerational, meaning that "GapSummit competitively selects 100 young leaders of tomorrow from around the world to connect with today's leaders in the global biotechnology community to inspire the next generation. GapSummit is proud to be the Global Biotech Revolution (GBR) flagship event, a youth-led, non-profit organization founded in 2012 at Cambridge University that connects and develops future leaders to accelerate the growth and advancement of the biotechnology ecosystem".
The first Gap Summit was held in Cambridge, the United Kingdom, in 2014, a recurring venue on a biennial basis. Other Gap Summit venues have included Georgetown University (2017) and the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard (2019). For all these reasons, being elected is a real achievement. It requires going through an application process of several months that includes submitting academic and professional background, answering a questionnaire, and an interview with GBR executives.
Ecuador has had the opportunity to have outstanding leaders, six in total, elected to represent the country at the Gap Summit. The first of these was in 2016 when Juan Diego Santillana Ortiz was selected to participate at the University of Cambridge. His interest in applying arose when he met some of the founders of the Global Biotech Revolution at an event on entrepreneurship and food security organized by Thought for Food in Lisbon, Portugal. They invited him to participate, and he felt very interested in the work of the organization.
As part of his training, he did his undergraduate degree in Biology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador. Today he is a Ph.D. candidate at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf. His area of expertise is Bioinformatics and Plant Science.
For Alexandra Cuaycal, the second Ecuadorian to be selected as a Leader of Tomorrow, the motivation to apply for the GapSummit came when she was finishing her Biotechnology Engineering degree at Universidad de las Fuerzas Armadas ESPE.
She applied to the event because she found it a great opportunity to learn and meet leaders who are currently shaping the biotechnology industry and future leaders she could share during the event. She attended the 2017 Gap Summit at Georgetown University, USA.
For her, the experience had an additional joy because, as part of the event, the Leaders of Tomorrow participate in the Voices of Tomorrow Competition, which consists of solving challenges through bio-entrepreneurship initiatives by teams.
The team was made up of four women from various countries (Italy, Sweden, New Zealand, Ecuador) and Kosmopolites. They worked on solving the sustainability gap with biotechnology. The objective of their project was to contribute to the reduction of pollution by plastics worldwide. Therefore they designed a biomaterial-based on fungal matter, which, printed in 3D, allows the replacement of packaging and disposable material based on flex-foam (styrofoam).
With this, they managed to pass to the final of the competition. They presented their project in front of seven international investors, winning the First Place.
Today Alexandra is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Microbiology and Cellular Sciences at the University of Florida in Gainsville, USA, working in the area of Cell Biology and Immunology. GapSummit was her inspiration to get more involved in biotechnology innovation, so it was also an impulse to participate in similar events and learn more. Her goal: to undertake in the future with the knowledge he acquired. Her advice to students and future professionals is to get involved in events that allow them to grow personally and professionally, to acquire a broad vision of biotechnology in all its fields. Thus, the exchange of ideas, strategies, and connections will allow a better vision of the development of Biotechnology in Ecuador and how they can contribute to promoting it.
Although the Gap Summit 2018 did not have Ecuadorian representation, the 2019 edition received two Ecuadorians at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as Tomorrow's Leaders in Biotechnology: Linda Guamán and Francisco Flores.
Francisco is a Ph.D. in Phytopathology, an Associate Professor at Universidad de las Fuerzas Armadas ESPE, Guest Researcher at UTE University, and an Associate Professor at Oklahoma State University. He works in the area of molecular analysis and bioinformatics.
He applied to the Gap Summit because he considered the Summit a unique opportunity to meet leaders at the forefront of biotechnology development worldwide. He knew that the selection of participants was rigorous, so he received the news of being selected with emotion.
During the Voices of Tomorrow Competition, he participated in the team called Food Linkx to achieve the genetic improvement of amaranth using molecular markers, proposing the commercialization of the product within a scheme of fair trade and advanced logistics. The experience allowed him to realize the opportunities for the development of business ideas in the biotechnological area. As a result of this experience, together with a team of professionals, he later managed to develop a project called "Nanosensors," which was one of the winners of the Innovacyt 2019 contest, one of the first initiatives to offer risk capital for the development of technological ideas in Ecuador. His message is that there are many opportunities for the development of biotechnology products worldwide. There is the availability of risk capital to be invested in good ideas. Still, these ideas must be presented adequately. It is necessary to encourage students to see beyond their own reality and, at the same time, try to change it. Ecuadorians must believe in our ability to undertake the development of biotechnological products. For that, it is fundamental to change the local vision of the academy.
On the other hand, Linda Guamán, who has a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Sao Paulo and works in the field of Synthetic Biology, also participated in the Gap Summit 2019, which has undoubtedly been the intervention with the most media coverage at the local level, of all the participations of Ecuadorians in the event. Within the Voices of Tomorrow Competition, his team reached the final, seeking to integrate animal meat's flavor to vegetable meat alternatives through a robotic nose guided by artificial intelligence. She has been one of the strongest voices that our country has had in the promotion of Women's Equality in Science, making visible the problem of the disparity in the number of male speakers versus women in congresses, as well as the strong presence of micro-machismo in academia and society in general. She has also raised her voice concerning the low scientific literacy of decision-makers. It has therefore promoted a greater listening to scientists for the construction of policies. Today, she is the Principal Technical Advisor for the diagnosis of COVID-19 of the Ministry of Health of the Municipality of Quito. Also, she continues her functions as a Researcher at the Center for Biomedical Research (CENBIO) of UTE. She has received several recognitions, one of them from the National Assembly of Ecuador.
The year 2020 arrived. It promised to be a new and powerful edition in the University of Cambridge; nevertheless, the current circumstances derived in this year took place in a very successful and just as powerful way, the first virtual version of the event. Two Ecuadorians were selected as part of the new cohort of Biotechnology Leaders: Paulina Fernandez-Soto and myself.
Paulina is a PhD. in Microbiology in the United Kingdom. She is working on research in the preclinical phase of drug development for tuberculosis. Her application to the Gap Summit was motivated by the opportunity to make contacts with potential collaborators. It was very gratifying for her to be selected based on her experience and demonstrable potential to be a tomorrow leader.
As part of the Voices of Tomorrow Competition, she and her team developed an initiative called DrugVance, which was based on the use of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to accelerate the clinical phase of drug development in rare diseases DrugVance was awarded Second Place.
Attending the GapSummit has further motivated her to continue on the path of scientific research. At the same time, she has been able to visualize academic research applications in the public arena. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manchester.
During the time she has spent abroad, in the so-called developed countries, she has perceived that the common factor is a high level of education and much investment in research, allowing the generation of industries. His personal advice to those who have strong training in science is to collaborate, generate more industries, and avoid bureaucracy in Ecuador, turning off ideas with wealth generation potential.
Now a little about me. I am Diana Mollocana, a Biotechnology Engineer who graduated from USFQ. Today I work as a Teaching and Research Assistant in the Plant Biotechnology Laboratory at my Alma Mater and as a Columnist and Blog Coordinator for Catalisis Magazine, the medium you are reading. My first Biotechnology projects were carried out working with Virus Bioinformatics, which awakened in me a great interest in the study of pathogenic microorganisms. However, my true passion is the world of Biobusiness and Innovation with a focus on Plant and Food Biotechnology, areas in which I currently work, in addition to being in constant training.
I came to know about the Gap Summit after my participation as a Young Biotechnology Leader in the Latin American version of the event: The Allbiotech Summit, founded by the first Latin American participants of GapSummit 2014. My greatest motivation to apply was the possibility of establishing a dialogue with the world leaders of biotechnological innovation to apply their visions in the development of our country's industries. With great astonishment and joy, I discovered that I had been selected during the last days of 2019. From there, I began to work on the Voices of Tomorrow competition, in the challenge of Zero Hunger through sustainable production and waste reduction. My project was called SCYFUP and pursued agricultural and food waste transformation into a single-cell protein produced by microorganisms to incorporate it as a food ingredient and direct consumption.
From my participation in the GapSummit, I take many things with me, where probably the main one is the perspective of the transformative power of biosciences as an axis of economic development. The great biotechnology start-ups are already leaving a strong positive impact all over the world. For this reason, it is precisely now that we must commit ourselves as a country to this field to boost the economy, which up until now has been fully extractivist and without effective innovation criteria. Being able to share with doctoral students from the best universities, founders of biotechnology companies, a Nobel Prize winner, and world-class academics, I understood from all of them a common factor: true leaders are a guide during difficult times. I will never forget the example of the organizing committee that was able to turn an originally face-to-face summit into an effective and dynamic virtual experience in just a few months. My advice from this learning is that we live in changing but fortunate times. The real power of biotechnology development is in cooperation. Nothing has ever been achieved at the scientific level because of a single person. We are all who have a role to play in achieving a great mission, beyond just our own personal perspectives.
It is spaces like the Gap Summit that allow us to realize that this is possible: transform, grow, and connect. Ecuadorian scientists have the capacity to be recognized internationally at all levels: students, young professionals, doctors, and entrepreneurs. The question is, how much more should happen so that the same recognition, support, and backing comes from our governments? If we bet on Biotechnology, we are not betting on the future. We are betting on today's leadership that is already in place.
Testimonials: Juan Diego Santillana, Alexandra Cuaycal, Francisco Flores, Paulina Fernandez-Soto. Diana Mollocana
Gap Summit: https://www.gapsummit.com/
Global Biotech Revolution: https://globalbiotechrevolution.com/
El Comercio. (17 de junio de 2019). Linda Guamán, la mujer que imprime el nombre de Ecuador en la ciencia mundial. Available on line at: https://www.elcomercio.com/tendencias/linda-guaman-lider-biotecnologia-harvard.html
Rodríguez, V. (19 de junio de 2020).La científica ecuatoriana Linda Guamán estuvo entre los finalistas del evento de MIT. Diario Primicias. Available on line at:https://www.primicias.ec/noticias/tecnologia/cientifica-ecuatoriana-linda-guaman-gana-evento-mit/
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Juan Diego Santillana, Alexandra Cuaycal, Francisco Flores, Paulina Fernandez-Soto Diana Mollocana
Vamos Mundo Magazine: https://vamos.com.ec/se-siente-una-profesional-las-ciencias-e-investigacion/
To Anna Gould, President of the Global Biotech Revolution, for her help in connecting with the Gap Summit Alumni, leaders of tomorrow of Ecuador, and her support and motivation in writing this article.
To Juan Diego Santillana, Alexandra Cuaycal, Francisco Flores, and Paulina Fernandez for their time and support in sharing their experiences.