[Credit: Dalie Jimenez]

Michael Koeris Tapped to Lead Biology Investments for this $4B Government Agency

Under Koeris' leadership, DARPA's Biotechnology Office will prioritize advancements in synthetic biology, focusing on innovative applications like AI in biology and space biotechnology
Policy & Public
Embriette Hyde, PhD
April 22, 2024

Michael Koeris has been a key figure in the synthetic biology industry for a long time. He’s founded more than a handful of companies, exiting several, served as a portfolio executive for the RADx initiative of the NIH during the COVID pandemic, held an appointment as an Associate Professor of Bioprocessing at the Keck Graduate Institute and in venture capital as Senior Bio Advisor & Venture Partner to The Venture Collective. And as of today, he embarks on perhaps the most exciting chapter in his storied career: the United States Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) has announced Koeris’ appointment as the next Office Director of the Biotechnologies Office (BTO).

Michael Koeris, PhD., is the new head of DARPA BTO [Credit: Dalie Jimenez]

I caught up with Koeris right after he attended the going away ceremony for his predecessor. Clad in his new DARPA logo-emblazoned shirt and carrying his new badge, he was breathless with excitement. Unfortunately, Koeris, who attended the very first SynBioBeta conference many years ago, won’t be able to attend this year, but he is sending his colleague at the BTO, Lieutenant Colonel Adam Willis, to represent the organization. And based on what I heard from Koeris during our little chat, a meeting with Lieutenant Colonel Willis at SynBioBeta this May is something you definitely want to put on the books.

Synbio and DARPA: A Long History Together

DARPA has a long and storied history as an agency driving and supporting innovation that not only ensures our national security but benefits our entire planet. Founded in 1958, DARPA has played a vital role in introducing several key developments. The internet may be the best example, which came about as a result of DARPA’s support of efforts working on the human-machine interface. GPS systems came from this, too. But even more recently, DARPA provided early investments in nucleic acid vaccine technology with their ADEPT program (launched in 2011), of which Moderna was a part.

Biotech—and even more specifically, synthetic biology—and BTO have a very intimate relationship forged over the past decade. 

DARPA BTO and Synthetic Biology have enjoyed a fruitful relationship for many years. [Image courtesy of DARPA]

“At BTO, we think about doing things with biology, and we think about operating within the context of biology,” Koeris explained to me. “We constantly think about what kinds of systems we can bring to bear to leverage some of the things biology does really well in order to level the playing field. And, like biology, we operate on different scales. We operate on the scale of the individual, the warfighter, and we operate on the scale of the system which, to a large extent, is our planet or potentially even in space.”

Operating in this way, says Koeris, enables the organization to achieve its primary mission: to create and prevent strategic surprise, whether it’s engineered or natural. 

It’s no surprise that synthetic biology has established a comfortable spot in the BTO’s programs throughout the years—the same spirit permeates both communities. The way Koeris describes the individuals who work in BTO makes me think of all of the people I interact with at SynBioBeta every year:

“I do this because I care one thousand percent,” he says, adding, “and that makes me just like everyone else here, and that’s what’s really amazing and exciting about this place. Everybody brings their best self—in the professional excellence sense—to work, and although I’ve been privileged to observe it a few times in my life, it’s something that I think is extremely, extremely rare. I’m extraordinarily privileged to be one of the Office Directors at DARPA.”

Two-Miracle Ideas

Koeris takes his appointment extremely seriously and is committed to using the three or four short years he has as Office Director to continue pushing synthetic biology forward through BTO programs. Although he can’t share all of his ideas, there are a couple of very important topics that he plans to prioritize during his time at BTO: AI and machine learning applied to biology and biology in space.

“We’re critically, comprehensively, and quickly evaluating where AI and ML can have a discrete impact on biology,” Koeris explains. “Unlike microchips or airplanes, biology is one of those beautiful things that can make more of itself. So you have to be careful about how you think about what AI and ML does to and with biology.”

An AI and machine learning graphic illustration, designed to represent the integration of these technologies into biological research. [DALL-E]

Biology in space is not a new idea and is something that the SynBioBeta community has excitedly engaged in and supported for years (BetaSpace, anyone?). It is a topic that is clearly very exciting to Koeris, and does have important implications for the future security not just of United States citizens, but of the entire human race.

“Humans cannot exist in space without taking biology into account and for a long period of time without doing things with biology on station up in orbit,” Koeris says. 

Speaking particularly of the potential use of biology in space, Koeris calls the problem a “DARPA hard” problem. DARPA-hard problems are those science miracles that are almost impossible and on which DARPA and BTO thrive. In fact, the problems BTO tries to address should be so hard that many of them fail because if not, that means that they haven’t aimed high enough.

“Half of the projects we fund may fail, but there’ll be enormous learnings. And the other half will be a raging success and you’ll get things like GPS technology, the Internet, and mRNA vaccines. I don’t think that’s a bad tradeoff,” Koeris said.

Aiming high, past the “escape velocity,” as it were, is part of DARPA and BTO’s very fabric. Koeris remembers back to his graduate school days in Jim Collins’ lab when he explained it to me.

“My old boss Jim Collins said that you have to structure your PhD thesis such that you need only one miracle, not more. You’ll have to work, and people will help you, and you’ll make one miracle happen. At DARPA, you get to work on problems that need two miracles! Our problems are so hard that they require two miracles—and we get it done,” Koeris told me.

Getting It Done with Brilliant Minds and Risky Money

One of the ways DARPA gets it done is through the rapid turnover (one to two tours of duty, i.e., 2-year term) of Office Directors and project managers. This is by design. Why? Because, says Koeris, “it forces the organization to stay fresh. As an institution, you “forget” why the thing that you tried and failed…failed. The world changes and science advances, and the impossible becomes possible again. Then, you can try again with a new set of eyes and ideas.”

But the other thing that is crucial in getting it done is the money that BTO, which draws from DARPA’S 2024 enacted budget of $4.12 billion, brings to the table—and who they bring it to. Those two miracle ideas that BTO loves aren’t always a great match for the industry VC world because they don’t weigh the risk against commercial potential in the same way. That also means that BTO checks are significantly larger than the checks a company might receive from a VC. The problems are that much harder, which means they need more money, and BTO is happy to deliver. 

But Koeris has plans on the funding side of things as well.

“I want to point out to the VC funders of the world, to all the other funding organizations, and all the other startups and academics that we should work this together because it’s always been a continuum of funding and development. My job will be to make sure that we socialize with the downstream parts of the funding community and the industrial community in order to mature the technology we need for our mission.”

One thing is for certain—Koeris has a big job ahead of him and big shoes to fill, but he is extremely ready for the challenge. His passion and excitement not only embody everything that the synthetic biology community is but also what BTO stands for. The organization is incredibly skillful, and we’re sure to hear about some of the challenging, two-miracle problems it is tackling under his guidance in the coming months and years.

Want to learn more about DARPA BTO? Come to SynBioBeta in San Jose this May to meet Lieutenant Colonel Adam Willis and hear about his program, GOLDEVAC, which is seeking to enhance the DoD’s ability to successfully care for and then evacuate large numbers of wounded service members by essentially extending the “Golden Hour.”

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