Dude I am so fucking hungover.
Those were the first words Austen ever said to me.
I didn’t know Austen well. I only met him briefly on two occasions. His terrible hangover wouldn’t normally be of particular note as a conversation starter. On this occasion, though, we had just sat down to a prep lunch in Las Vegas. We were two out of 10 startup founders who had made it to the semi-finals of the Extreme Tech Challenge. A startup competition event seeking out the best and the brightest new companies. In 60 minutes time, we would be going on stage to pitch a panel of industry judges at CES to earn a spot in the top 3 — who would subsequently be flying to Richard Branson’s private island to participate in the finals.
I had been up most of the previous night going over my slides again. We had just 5 minutes to impress a bunch of people who - by their very nature - are not easily impressed.
Austen, apparently, had spent his evening rather differently.
Have you ever been fucking banned from a casino before?
I couldn’t decide whether he was serious or not.
I’d never heard of Cambrian Genomics before. All I knew was that a semi-homeless looking guy had sat down beside me and was now explaining to me, at length, how pissed off he was about being banned from all MGM properties throughout Las Vegas. (For anyone unfamiliar with Vegas: That’s basically all of them)
I wondered if he had sat down at the wrong table.
We chatted, for a while. I asked about mostly about his startup. Austen responded mostly about how bad his hangover was and how MGM management was bullshit. Eventually he asked me what I did, and I told him a little about Ghost.
So how do you get the subscription revenue?
I was taken aback. “We use Stripe?” - I answered cautiously, suspecting a trick question. “What’s that?” he asked. And so for the next 15 minutes or so I tried to explain the concept of an online payment processor, while Austen asked - repeatedly - “But why can’t I just call up my bank and tell them that I want to take Visa now?”
It was the most bizarre first encounter I think I’ve ever had with someone. I thought he was very strange.
An hour or so later we were all taking it in turns to pitch the judges. I was blown away by the quality of all the presentations. I was unfamiliar with all but a couple of the top 10 contestants and I wasn’t sure what to expect. If I had walked into that room with a proud feeling about our growth and traction – I most certainly left with my jaw dragging somewhere along the floor behind me and my tail tucked firmly between my legs.
Our 10% monthly revenue growth suddenly didn’t feel so amazing alongside Wanderu’s 900% quarter-over-quarter user growth. Nor did our $300k Kickstarter campaign sound very amazing when pegged against Sir Charles Michael Yim’s “I was the first ever person to close every single investor on Shark Tank and since then I’ve raised [I don’t even know how many] $million.” (Sic)
The last person to present for the day was Austen.
Raise your hand if you’ve been banned from a fucking Casino before
(He raised his own hand)
Nine polished pitches were complete, and Austen wanted to make it perfectly clear that he was currently doing his very best to search for some fucks to give, and had located precisely none.
So basically I have a company called Cambrian Genomics, blah blah blah, you don’t need to see these slides. So essentially we print DNA and then we inject it into cells and grow our own creatures. Jurassic Park? Yep, just like that. It’s probably totally safe. Whatever.”
The whole pitch must’ve lasted about 3 minutes out of his allotted 5. For at least 90% of the time - Austen had the entire room of around 300 people in stitches of laughter as he astutely cruised through his slides without a care in the world. Nobody could quite tell what was happening, or whether or not to take him seriously. Everyone unanimously agreed that his pitch was the best of the day, though certainly for varying reasons. He made an impression on every single person.
He never did tell us how he managed to get banned from all MGM properties on his very first visit, no matter how much we asked.
The second time I met Austen was a month later, on Necker Island. Neither of us had made it into the top 3 of the Extreme Tech Challenge, but we had been invited along as a part of the event to pitch Richard Branson in person anyway.
One Thursday evening at the beginning of February, seven of us were lead quietly to Branson’s private dining room and sat down at a long wooden table on an island in the middle of the Caribbean. We ate slowly as Richard turned to each of us, one by one, to hear what it was that we were working on. Austen, sitting directly opposite Richard, was 5th in the lineup.
Perhaps he wasn’t hungover. Maybe he was in a good mood. Regardless of what it was, he was in a totally different place that day. Austen stared calmly across the table as he started to explain the human genome, what elements and markers make up various aspects of DNA, and how using open source technology - Cambrian Genomics was making it possible to write entirely new DNA. His work would create the ability to cure diseases, create stronger genetics, choose your baby’s eye-colour and even (Austen’s favourite) develop entirely new creatures.
It was perhaps the only pitch which made Branson’s pen pause from its furious note-taking, albeit briefly, just to take in everything as he listened with rapt attention.
Austen talked about how he had taken DNA from a firefly and injected it into plant cells in order to create the world’s first glow-in-the-dark trees. He discussed the makeup of Malaria and how it could be manipulated. He explained how DNA was like source code, cells were like an operating system, organisms were like apps, and how - given the right tools - one can program all of them in turn.
The entire table was silent as we all witnessed a side of Austen that none of us had seen before at CES.
There are only a very few people I’ve met in my life who have a certain quality about them which is inexplicably mesmerising. Listening to Austen talk about DNA was like listening to Elon Musk talk about space travel. A concept so far beyond comprehension for all but the greatest minds, explained as if it were as inconsequential as basic arithmetic.
Richard was visibly excited as he asked about the prospect of bringing back extinct species, which Austen confirmed was indeed possible. (No, not dinosaurs. DNA doesn’t last quite that long - but people are already working on the Woolly Mammoth)
For the remainder of our time on the island, Austen and I gravitated toward one another in large gatherings of some of the world’s wealthiest individuals. I think he sensed that I was as uncomfortable in those settings as he was, at times.
We talked, instead, about bio engineering and where the moral compass comes to rest on the topic of playing God — a subject which seemed to fascinate everyone who ever met Austen, with the notable exception of Austen himself.
His curious mind seemed intent on simply making things.
Austen was, without question, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. Beneath all the quirks and troubled yet somehow still playful personality, lay an unquestionably gifted, brilliant intellect.
I didn’t know Austen well. I only met him briefly on two occasions. But I won’t ever forget him.
As I returned home from the trip of a lifetime, the question has come over and over again from friends and family… “So what was it like meeting Richard Branson?” - and my answer has always been the same each and every time:
Yeah it was pretty cool, but let me tell you about this other guy I met while I was over there; he prints DNA with lasers.
Rest in peace.
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