Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Out of the Crisis #14: Robert Rhinehart on the Corona Initiative, accelerating basic research, and finding a cure faster

"I really like that resilience word," Robert Rhinehart told me in our conversation about his new organization, The Corona Initiative. You may know him as the founder of Soylent, the nutrition company he started in his kitchen and scaled nationwide. That company was founded on filling a need Robert saw while living in San Francisco and working on a radio startup. "I saw a lot of poverty and hunger on the streets around me, and in my own bank account and nutrition, and I started to think, 'You know what? I've been so focused on electronics hardware. What I really need is better food.'" Instead of waiting, he went ahead and did something about it.

The same impulse is behind the Corona Initiative, which is working to research diagnostics for the coronavirus and also build the tools scientists need to study the virus. Robert believes in "the powerful idea of self-reliance and this idea that you should know how to take care of yourself, and your family, and your community." That's why the Corona Initiative is a Public Benefit Corporation--a for-profit company dedicated to the public good that aims to fund its research with its revenues. As he explains, it also has "a diversified bottom line where it's not just about near-term profits. You really want to see the whole system. You really want to see how your company treats its employees, treats its customers, treats the environment, taking a longer-term view."

The Corona Initiative is helping to repair one of the many foundational flaws across all parts of our society by funding science at levels, and at a speed, that are hard to come by through traditional means. Robert and I talked about how it's working, the science of pseudoviruses and reporter genes, how his father's example in science and business set him on his path, and how to bridge the gap between science and finance.

You can listen to our conversation on Apple, Google, or wherever you like to download podcasts.


In addition, a complete transcript of our conversation follows the show resources below.

Highlights from the show:

  • Robert's quarantine set-up and tips (3:09)
  • The paper he read that made the coming crisis clear (4:39)
  • Robert's background and how he got into food science (6:14)
  • On why food science has become polarized hard to do well (10:21)
  • Robert's personal connection to his work via his father (12:22)
  • How bureaucratic delay harms diagnostics and health (16:24)
  • On how success isn't binary (19:50)
  • How the Corona Initiative started (20:30)
  • The idea of the public benefit corporation (22:02)
  • The "pseudovirus" and the reporter gene (24:02)
  • The difference between an antigen test and a serologic test (27:10)
  • The first weeks of the Corona Initiative (31:54)
  • The organization's partnership with City of Hope and the problems with traditional science funding mechanisms (33:21)
  • The NIH and private biopharmaceutical companies (37:32)
  • Bridging the worlds of science and finance (41:39)
  • Applying management theory to scientific innovation (43:52)
  • The Corona Initiative's tools for accelerating research (49:37)
  • Why revenue is important for learning (51:20)
  • What Robert has learned about the virus  (53:35) 
  • The entrepreneur/customer mentality for the Corona Initiative and what it's uncovered (57:15)
  • Commercializing vaccine efforts (58:58)
  • The need to embrace inventors and innovators (1:02:13)
  • Robert's thoughts on the long-term impact of the crisis and self-reliance (1:03:46)

Show-related resources:

Transcript for Out of the Crisis #14, Robert Rhinehart and the Corona Initiative


Eric Ries: This is Out of the Crisis. I am Eric Ries. Don't you wish we had done more to invest in science, basic research or evidence-based practices in the before times? It's hard to imagine that if we had, the damage caused by the pandemic would be so immense, but we didn't. We didn't prioritize science. We didn't let scientists drive our public policy. We didn't prioritize the experimentation, the groundwork, the foundation building that progress and resilience require. We can't change the past, but we do have a say in the future if we're willing.

Robert Rhinehart has always been interested in science. Many of you will know Robert as the founder of Soylent, which he started out of his kitchen and then grew into a nationwide phenomenon. When the virus began to roll across the world, Robert started investigating how he could help. His journey led him to the realization that we have huge gaps in the support system for our researchers. It's easy to say that companies, universities and the government should be doing more to find a cure, but that ignores years of overlooking the importance of the work of those studying infectious disease, and in many cases, the lack of sophisticated tooling that they urgently need.

There are major gaps in our system that are limiting progress on vaccines and therapeutics and so much more. These gaps are what led Robert to found a public benefit corporation called The Corona Initiative. The Corona Initiative is focused on building the tools, the building blocks, the accelerant needed by scientists studying the virus. Hopefully for all of us, The Corona Initiative is a successful catalyst for SARS-CoV-2 research. Let's not let this be a one-off phenomenon. We need to start re-imagining our institutions to ensure lasting progress.

We need to find those foundational flaws across all parts of our society. When we find weaknesses, sometimes we will need to plug the gaps. Other times, we will need a complete reorganization, a transformation which may yet be painful, but now is the time to begin this work. Our institutions are already under tremendous strain and some of them are falling apart around us, and we find a way to use this moment to lay the foundations of future progress.

Here is my conversation with Robert Rhinehart.

Robert Rhinehart: Hi. My name is Robert Rhinehart. I'm general partner at MarsBio VC and Director of The Corona Initiative. Formerly, I served as CEO of Soylent Nutrition. I invented the nutrition beverage product known as Soylent, which a company continues to grow and flourish today.

Eric Ries: The title of the show is Out of the Crisis, but it's hard to focus on leading when you aren't taking care of yourself. So could we start with how are you doing? How's your family? What's your quarantine set-up?

Robert Rhinehart: My quarantine set-up is a, I have a decent lab at home so I could run basic experiments. I had that before Coronavirus. I love running experiments on my own, and I'm really excited about, I don't really like the term "bio-hacking," but there's a lot of fun and educational biology and chemistry experiments you can do at home like I did some polymer synthesis and some basic yeast genetic engineering. I also bake a lot of bread at home where knowledge of yeast metabolism and ratio of yeast to lactobacilli comes in handy.

I also really recommend getting a nice webcam for someone that spends a lot of time on Zoom. Phone cameras and laptop cameras I think it doesn't put you at the best angle. I have a webcam and a headset, and also connected all the various messaging apps into the web browser and the desktop which I highly recommend. I don't really have to use my phone during the day. I can control everything and all of the messages and calls from the PC.

I've also been spending a lot of time on the phone with my family and my mom in Atlanta. One silver lining in a crisis can be bringing people together and I have heard from old friends and colleagues that people that I ... some people I hadn't talked to in years that I checked up on them or they checked up on me. So I've been spending really a lot of time investing in some of my old relationships and talking to my family, which I really enjoy.

Eric Ries: Was there a moment that you remember where the reality of the pandemic struck you?

Robert Rhinehart: I think it was a certain paper that I read that seemed to really get to a strong scientific basis that this virus was a little different. It was a specific paper on Coronavirus entering the brain stem. I don't think that is the most interesting effect, and I really think at this point maybe that paper was a little overblown, but the deeper I dug, the more it started to look like there was something really serious here.

People that know me know that I don't spend a lot of time reading press honestly. I don't really have any social media, or read a lot of the news frankly because I feel like a lot of it is overblown and a lot of it is just wrong and there's very little accountability as to who is right about what, and a lot of it seems to be just over blowing. I felt like the news was just moving on from one crisis to the next. Maybe this was just another crisis without a big backing, but I guess that was a hard lesson for me that every so often something is real, and I should have been paying better attention.

It really started to get the attention of the scientific community. Once some of the papers started coming out that showed that this was very interesting, this was very different, there was something special about this virus. I wanted to get to the bottom of that. I wanted to understand the virus better. I wanted to understand why it was different from other coronaviruses. I wanted to understand where it came from, and I wanted to understand various ways that we could fight it.

Eric Ries: Tell us a little bit about your background. Most people I think at least in the technology community know you as the inventor of Soylent and the company by the same name. How did you get into food science and what were you doing before that?

Robert Rhinehart: It's a bit of a roundabout path. Before that, I was an electronics engineer. Before Soylent, I was working on a company building wireless radios. I was developing a mesh network that I envisioned being useful in the developing world and for the internet of things. I really believed in selling hardware. I did study computer science, and I love software, especially open source software, but I just like the challenge of hardware. I liked having something physical. I liked having something tactilel. I liked dealing with the bomb, and I wanted to find this intersection of software and hardware that would lead to a really great product.

I went through YCombinator on this radio company. Afterwards, I was living in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and my company was basically running out of money. I was trying to reduce my burn basically to zero. Then around me, I saw a lot of poverty and hunger on the streets around me, and in my own bank account and nutrition, and I started to think, "You know what? I've been so focused on electronics hardware. What I really need is better food."

I really started to see food and nutrition as hardware. Formula is like a bomb, and your manufacturing needs to have even tighter controls. You're selling a consumable product, which is a great business model. I felt like that was an opportunity to make even a bigger impact in providing more people with internet access was providing them with access to healthy food. I think that's how I really got into health.

I also saw a real lack of scientific rigor in the field of nutrition. I wanted there to be more and better scientific studies. I also saw an incredibly bright future for agricultural biology. It seemed like it was a field that was held back a lot mostly by people misunderstanding the technology or sloppy use of the technology. I would argue that a lot of them are impactful innovations in human history or in agriculture, whether it'd be synthetic fertilizer or crop rotation, or seed drills. A lot of the technology that I think really enables what some would call our modern world is related to food than health.

I decided I was going to devote my career to that. Furthermore, I just saw such a bright future for, I don't even know if the term synthetic biology was coined at the time, but I started hanging out at these bio-hacker spaces like BioCurious and just saw such an acceleration of the basic tools needed to do research and biology. It really reminded me of the early days of software and hardware and this hacker culture. I just knew that biology was going to be the next big thing.

Eric Ries: It does remind you of the Homebrew Computer Club, doesn't it?

Robert Rhinehart: A hundred percent.

Eric Ries: There is this history of people using science to advance human civilization in profound ways through food improvements, and agriculture improvements in food delivery and cultivation systems. We've also, it seems like, historically struggled with science around food and the science of nutrition has been plagued by long standing wrong beliefs and cargo cult consensus around ideas about what is healthy, what causes obesity, what causes heart disease that have been proven to be wrong and yet have lingered for a long time.

To me, it seems like it has this special resonance with the current crisis, because we'd had this problem where we know that we need to respect scientific authorities, at least those of us who are educated have that ingrained in us, and yet sometimes those authorities do get things wrong. We have not really figured it out as a society. How do we balance between critical inquiry and being willing to challenge the status quo without falling into a blind contrarianism that is politically expedient.

Talk a little bit about why you think food science in particular has been such a polarized and difficult thing to get right.

Robert Rhinehart: I think it's deceptively difficult and deceptively complicated. On the one hand, everyone can cook, but do they really know what's going on? The chemistries involved are incredibly complex and nutrition, it's on the one hand balance or diet. Eat not too much of this and more of that, but the whole network and system of how your body uses it and interacts with its environment is just so incredibly complex. It's also something that traditional tools of science like running a controlled experiment make it very difficult. It's very difficult to run a controlled repeatable experiment and nutrition, because everybody's different and it takes so long.

At the end of the day, you have very high level inputs and very high level outputs, and it's very difficult to get into the underlying mechanisms of a lot of this. Also everyone, there's such a personal and emotional attachment to food and I think I can blame the press a little bit for latching onto some either a retracted or withdrawn papers, or sloppy science and turn it into a salacious headline and people are just so confused. Coffee both gives you cancer and prevents cancer. Soybean oil is the best oil and it's dangerous.

There's all these conflicting data, because the experimental design and methods are complicated. You could easily design and experiment to vilify or sanctify pretty much any food or ingredient. It's not the sort of thing that you can really do in a Petri dish or around your microscope. It's very complicated.

Eric Ries: You had a personal connection to biology and a personal interest even before all this. You want to talk a little bit about that?

Robert Rhinehart: I did. I always had a lot of respect for my father. He went to the same school I did, Georgia Tech, and studied electrical engineering. I think that was before they even had a computer science department. He worked as an engineer and then went into finance for many years and then was recruited to be president of a biotech company, diagnostics company. On the one hand, I was always fascinated that one person could have these multiple disciplines throughout their career. He really exemplified always reading, and always studying, and always learning. So I knew I wanted that to be a component of my life.

I saw him just work so hard on this diagnostics company where he partnered with this scientist that had developed a called it a risk assessment or a diagnostic to basically determine one's risk of stroke and heart attack. He had a personal connection to that as well, because he took the test and found out that he was about to have a stroke, and was able to have a preventative stent, which saved his life and gave him many more years alive.

He had a personal attachment to that product, and I did as well. Even before that, I remember as a child him describing how he had this congenital heart defect and he had an artificial heart valve installed, which I could actually hear as a click. He told me that part of his heart was basically made in a factory and installed in his heart like a machine. That allowed him to live much longer. I remember as a kid that just blew my mind. That was the coolest thing ever that you could ... It really showed that like, "Okay, our body is ..."

I was raised religious and my father was very devout and believed strongly in the soul, and the spirit and everything, but as far as the body goes I thought that really blew my mind. You could basically make something in a factory and install it into your organ and it would improve it or make it last longer and give you many more years of life. I always thought that was really cool.

Then I saw him work on this diagnostic company for years and it started out as ELISA assay, which needs to be run in a laboratory setting. Then he started talking about this technology where you could basically take the test out of the laboratory and put it into this very small convenient strip of paper basically, which allowed this point of care test to be used in the field. Now, one of the markets they were going after were professional athletes and knowing if they had a concussion and the other market were people either suffering from or at risk of stroke, and there were clear advantages to be able to use this test in the field literally in the sense of athletes or at home.

It fascinated me that you could take this technology that needed this advanced machine and it's clean advanced laboratory and put it on this small mobile device. I had some familiarity with that diagnostic space and unfortunately, he never really saw it get to market. It was a long and difficult road and he ended up passing away last year, which is very hard on me, and my mom, and my family, but one of the last things he said to me before he passed was, "Never give up."

I saw him just through all the difficulties with the FDA and investors, and science and patent attorneys and all the hurdles of the company, he never gave up. Through that process, I was introduced to that diagnostic technology and the team that helps develop it. Then earlier this year when COVID started becoming more widespread and I became more and more interested in the virus I thought, "We really need this type of diagnostic."

Crucially, I understood the difference between an antigen diagnostic and a serological diagnostic. The technology is called, "Lateral flow assay." When I saw a lot of these tests coming out there only with the only serologic, I knew that we needed an antigen test. I knew that we needed a better test. Also, I knew that I was familiar with that technology and I had the tools, and resources and people needed to make a superior diagnostic. So, that's what I started working on.

Eric Ries: That's a really poignant story about your father and that long struggle. I often think about people who design these systems, policymakers, and big companies, and lawyers, and the approvals that are required, the bureaucracy that are required really to get anything done in this world. They all seem like they have this built-in assumption that there's always more time. It's like the way you won't hurt anybody. What's the cost of delay? It's only these moments when you realize like, "Delay is one thing we really can't afford," because time is short.

If we actually make it easier to get things done, then more things will get done, and that's not to say we can't have safety and we can't do a good job making sure that a certain process is followed, or that ... It's probably about just that we have compassion and kindness or it's also trying to get things done in this world. It's remarkably difficult. I so resonate with that story. I feel like any of us, it could be the story of any of us who've tried to create anything that the delays just add up and they add up, and they add up.

Robert Rhinehart: The cost of delay is deceptively enormous, especially when it comes to people's health. I never really got it. The way he described it to me when I was younger was this chicken and egg problem where he was trying to raise money for this diagnostics company and all the investors would ask, "Well, are you FDA approved?" He would say, "Well no, that's why we need the money to get our FDA." Then the FDA would say, "You need $20 million to run all these clinical studies and he said, " Well, no one will get that money without the FDA's giving the test some blessing."

He was just caught in this quagmire for years and years. What really got me is that the tests seemed to have almost no downside. It's an in vitro diagnostic. You take a drop of someone's blood and you tell them if they're at risk for stroke or you tell them some crucial information about a concussion. It seemed like what's the risk of an in vitro diagnostic? It seemed vanishingly small and look at all these people that have undiagnosed concussions or are at high risk of stroke. It's killing all these people. So the cost of delay is immense.

Eric Ries: I remember when the crisis first broke and I was really grappling with what this is going to mean for my company and my family, and all the different people in the ecosystem that I have relationships with. I had this moment of almost wanting to have a wake for all the projects that will never launch now, because they were not sensitive to cost of delay, and it seemed like, "Well, we can always wait a week, an extra week, an extra day, an extra this, an extra that."

Then the crisis comes, the world has changed and the things that were launched before that happened are still launched, but the things that were not many of them now never will be. I guess maybe you just have to go through that collective trauma to really internalize that lesson that time really is scarce, and we who create those systems, investors, lawyers, policymakers, CEOs, all kinds of leaders, we have to be thinking about the builders and the people who create things that are midst.

What are we doing to make their lives more bearable, to cut down those delays? Because even if in the end the test was not successful or the start-up fails, or the product is a flop, we can mitigate those causes pretty easily, but we can never get back the time that we waste.

Robert Rhinehart: You still made progress. I think that the only sure fire way to fail is to do nothing. If you make a mistake, you can make the test better or you can start a new company in the process of developing the product, and the people you hired, and the people that you trained, all those people have new skills. All the people that make the components got paid. Progress was made. I don't see successes as binary. I think failure is an action and constant delays.

If you're taking an action even if it's, it's usually a winding path to success. You just need to keep moving.

Eric Ries: Amen to that. Tell us about The Corona Initiative. Who else is involved in the project and how did it come about?

Robert Rhinehart: It came about when I was seeking not just to develop this diagnostic but also improve the scientific funding process around coronavirus research. It was clear that the NIH grant process is going to be very, very slow. A lot of people had projects that could yield substantial data related to the virus in weeks or a month, and all the universities were suddenly closed down to everything except for coronavirus research and I thought, "Hey, this is a great time to do science. Everyone's focused on this."

I had this proposal I put together that I'm going to work on this diagnostic, but crucially I'm also going to work on platform tools, and pick some shovels for research, and that I'm going to use, but I'm also going to tell them to other researchers that they could use, and I'm also going to do some small research grants to help the general understanding of coronavirus. That proposal got the attention of Sam Altman who was refreshingly decisive and invested in the company.

Initially, so I was already a partner at this venture fund, and we've been investing a biotech company including diagnostic companies for a couple years. I asked him, "What structure makes the most sense? Should I just do this as a nonprofit? Should I do it under the management company of the fund?" He suggested to make this a company and so I did so. He just invested in the company as a safe note.

I also wanted to do this corporate designation, which is called, "The public benefit corporation." Ever since I began my entrepreneurial journey, I really believed in the idea of social entrepreneurship, and having this diversified bottom line where it's not just about near term profits. You really want to see the whole system. You really want to see how your company treats its employees, treats its customers, treats the environment, what's taking a longer term view.

I just thought it was a culture of a company only being about the money. I also don't think that's the best way to make money. I think that it takes time to build a culture and build a company, and focusing on the whole network and the whole system, and what you do for other companies and what you do for the world is a really important part of starting a company.

I always like this idea of the public benefit corporation where it's not a nonprofit. You do want to make money, you do want to commercialize, but it's okay if you do something that doesn't have immediate bottom line impact. I thought, "Okay, well I want to invest in some research that's going to benefit the overall healthcare ecosystem and the overall research community." That may not immediately impact the bottom line of the company, but that's okay. I still want to do that.

I wanted to make it a PBC, a public benefit corporation. A lot of the same mechanisms, you can buy and sell stock, you can sell the company, you can go public. So I really like this idea of the public benefit corporation. Sam Altman invested in it and so I immediately kicked off the projects that I queued up. Things moved really quickly. I signed a contract.

Eric Ries: When was this?

Robert Rhinehart: This was about eight weeks ago. That was early March.

Eric Ries: Early March?

Robert Rhinehart: Mm-hmm (affirmative). In the first week, I incorporated the company, got it funded, launched the website, and signed three research contracts, and filed three patents. It was really nice to be able to hit the ground running, and those projects, they played out. So we developed with City of Hope a what's called a, "pseudovirus." What was clear was one of the biggest limitations to setting the virus is that it's highly infectious. Nobody wants to deal with a live virus. To do so, you need what's called a "BSL3 facility," which is basically a clean room, but you need your staff out to be specially trained.

It's a huge hassle, and still risky. There's not that many BSL3 facilities. What's really important to me is that there's a way to study this virus without the technicians being infected. The way to do that is what's called a pseudovirus, which is where you basically recombinantly make a version of the virus that is either identical or very similar accepted, has its infectious DNA or RNA removed and replaced with a reporter gene like GFP or luciferase.

Eric Ries: Explain what a reporter gene is.

Robert Rhinehart: A reporter gene is so let's say you want to test the functionality of the virus. A common test would be a viral entry or a viral attachment assay. You want to get some cells that express this host cell surface receptor ACE2, and you want to test an antibody to see if that will block the virus from entering the cell. So you're doing this In Vitro, you have these wells or these Petri dishes, and your virus, you mix it with a media and you mix it without any ... with your control, virus will of course infect the cells.

Then instead of making more virus, it will make a protein that's very easy to see on their microscope. The GFP is this fluorescent protein. They have these fluorescent microscopes and you can put your assay on the microscope. Then if the virus did indeed infect those cells instead of making other viruses, they will make this fluorescent protein, which you can easily see under the microscope, and you can also quantify it to some degree and see the relative light units the relative degree of infection.
You could run an assay where you have your control substance and you see the virus infect these cells, and it's very easy to tell that they infected them, because they will literally glow green. If you're testing something like an antibody that's supposed to block attachment or entry at different concentrations then hopefully the viruses did not infect the cells and those will not glow. So that's a way that you can test the viability of something like the monoclonal antibody therapy or different small molecules to test it without dealing with a live infectious version of the virus.

There's all sorts of other things you can do with a pseudovirus. For us, the first thing we tested with a pseudovirus was the diagnostic itself. Would the diagnostic detect the pseudovirus, which would be far better data than just detecting a recombinantly expressed antigen, especially spike protein. Spike protein is very unstable, it's floppy, it's difficult to make, and it's not the recombinant spike protein available is not full length. So it was this great tool for improving the sensitivity of the diagnostic.

Eric Ries: Explain the difference between an antigen test and a serologic test, and I'll pick up the story from when you were saying you saw some of the early research going into COVID, and you were concerned that this kind of testing was missing. Just explain why that was so important to you.

Robert Rhinehart: A serologic test is great in that it is point of care. You can do it in a clinic, you can do it at home. The first test that came out were these RNA PCR tests, which are great in terms of their accuracy. You know the RNA sequence of the virus. You can amplify that on PCR and you can know to a pretty nice degree of certainty that you've seen the RNA for the virus and it is indeed the virus, and it is indeed this virus and not another virus that was called, "specificity," but you need to collect the sample, and send it to the lab and people need to wait days for results, and you're dealing with infectious samples.

So there's issues with the PCR test. So then the serological test, it's a lateral flow assay, and so you have this basically strip of paper and it's nitrocellulose and on top of that goes this polymer membrane and then in that is dissolved something like the spike protein. That's your capture reagent. Then what happens is that your sample, which could be blood, could be saliva, some people are testing stool samples, it could be nasal samples, but with the serological test, we are really looking for our antibodies.

There are two different antibodies that they look for. There's the IgG and the IgM. There are different categories of antibodies, antibody IgG is the most common, and what this serological test looks for is, is there something in your blood that is binding to this spike protein. If so, they are conjugated to these nanoparticles or these nano shells, which are basically this, a typically gold spheres on top of graphite, which are about a hundred nanometer in diameter, and you can see them.

If you were to get a serological test, the plastic part is called the cassette. If you broke that open, you would see the small strip of paper and you would see these little dark blue dots scattered across it. So those are the nanoparticles. Those are conjugated and the sample and the membrane uses this capillary effect. If you have a straw in a cup of water, you'll see the water climb up the sides of the straw due to surface tension.

So, it uses a similar effect to draw a liquid across the membrane and then if your antibodies are binding to a spike protein then they will collect on this line. So this bind is printed with the capture reagent, and then if the conjugation reagent binds to something, which in theory would be the spike protein, which means that you've made the antibodies across against the coronavirus, it will collect on this line and you will see this signal, you will see this solid line show up on the test.

It's nice to know. It'd be good to know that you have antibodies against coronavirus, but there are some issues with that. First issue was that it takes time for your body to make antibodies. When you're exposed to something especially coronavirus, which is somewhat a depth at hiding for the immune system, for example, the spike protein is very heavily glycosylated similar to HIV, and that makes it physically and biochemically, biophysically very difficult for antibodies to bind to.

The way that it binds to the host cell receptor is it has this receptor binding domain that can be in these two different conformations up or down. It's tricky. Its binding side changes its shape, which makes it difficult to target. The exterior is glycosylated, which makes it very difficult to bind too, and so it is somewhat effective at avoiding the immune system, but you will eventually make antibodies. However, it could take six or more days.

The sensitivity numbers reported in the serological tests are for six days after infection. Even then, you only get 75, maybe 85% sensitivity, so you're going to be getting a lot of false negatives. Even when the test is used as designed and everything goes perfectly, there are several days where you are infectious and will still test negative. So the time it takes your body to make these antibodies is a big issue. Also, once you make antibodies, those stay in your bloodstream for years.

What we're really measuring with the serological test is not who has the virus right now and who is infectious, but who has ever been exposed, which is interesting, but really we want to know who is infectious today.

Eric Ries: Let me just pick up the story again from after Sam Altman invested and you said you had that great first week.

Robert Rhinehart: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Eric Ries: You made the decision early March to go all in, even though you had a day job you had plenty of other things you could have been working on to go all in on tools and diagnostics around COVID. You had that great first week, you raised money, you filed patents, you were up and running. What happened next?

Robert Rhinehart: Then we started making progress every day. For the diagnostic, we started screening different conjugation and capture reagents for the pseudovirus. We ordered plasmids and started expressing and purifying the product. For the structural biology studies, we started crystallizing proteins, so we were pretty busy.

Eric Ries: How did you create the pseudovirus?

Robert Rhinehart: There are four different plasmids that you transfect into the million cell, HEK 293T is a very common one. Then we use this transfection reagent I like called FuGENE from Promega. The plasmids themselves, it's important to realize that the plasmids are based on lentivirus and HIV is a type of lentivirus. You do want to do this work in a BSL3 facility. So City of Hope has this BSL-3 facility so they can deal with these potential infectious plasmids, but the product itself is not infectious. Get these plasmids and then you put them all together in the cell, and then you're basically making this custom virus in a human cell.

Eric Ries: You said you are partnering with somebody else who has that kind of lab to make the pseudovirus. Can you just explain that a bit? Were they one of the people you gave a grant to? I'm trying to figure out how these all things connect together.

Robert Rhinehart: It's a research contract. We signed a contract with City of Hope, which is this great medical institution, and they had the BSL-3 lab.

Eric Ries: I see.

Robert Rhinehart: They were able to do that work.

Eric Ries: Explain the role of City of Hope in all this.

Robert Rhinehart: City of Hope is a medical institution. It's a hospital that also does research. City of Hope made the pseudovirus.

Eric Ries: I think one of the things that's going to hard for those who are not from a scientific or research background to understand is something you said early on in the story which is that even though we're in a time of crisis, even though every university lab is shuttered except for their work on the coronavirus, even still the traditional science funding mechanisms are not a good fit. Can you explain what is wrong and then therefore what is needed?

Robert Rhinehart: What is needed is decisive even if they're small grants for projects that will produce data in a span of months not years.

Eric Ries: What's an example?

Robert Rhinehart: An example of a project like that would be a lot of the structural biology studies that have been fantastic. For example, getting the structure of the spike protein, which was done, I think his name was McLellan at UT Austin. So the spike protein, it's difficult to express, it's difficult to purify and it's quite large, but structural biology tools, so structural biology is basically getting a three-dimensional map of a biological thing. Protein and enzyme, people have even visualized the whole virus, and that's one thing I started looking for and supporting was this structural biology studies of the full next spike protein and the whole virus.

That's very crucial, because it allows you to do a simulation of the virus protein or the whole virus into a computer. Today, there are all these very useful and very sophisticated simulation and design tools, which allow you to design therapeutics and antibodies to target these proteins. Once the scientific community had the structure of the spike protein, which basically its shape, but it's not just its shape, it's its elemental and its amino acid composition.

There are a set number of elements used in biology and there's a set number of amino acids and those have known dynamic physical forces. It's imperfect, but we can, in simulation, in software and computers, we can design antibodies, and peptides, and micro antibodies. We can design all these things that will bind to or disrupt the functioning of the virus and design therapeutics.

Structural biology is something that also doesn't take years once you have a purified sample, if it's small enough then you crystallize it and you shoot it with X-rays. Based on the, what's called the "diffraction pattern," you can infer the structure of the protein and if it's a larger protein, you use what's called, "cryo-EM" on where you flash freeze it and then put it under an electron microscope, and from there use these advanced software techniques to infer the three-dimensional structure of something larger.

Eric Ries: I think it's hard for people really to understand this disconnect between the billions, tens of billions. Gosh, it's going to be hundreds of billions of dollars that will ultimately be dedicated to research and recovery from the pandemic. If all of these major funders, governments, the largest research institutions in the world are making these massive grants, how can it be that this fundamental research that can have such important results so quickly, how is that not being funded? You talked about the need for decisive action for quick small grants. I think I know the answer to this, but I want to hear it from the perspective of the laboratory. Why is that important and why is that missing?

Robert Rhinehart: The NIH has its process. They don't want to make a mistake, and they don't want to look bad, and they have all the time in the world.

Eric Ries: It comes back to cost of delay, doesn't it?

Robert Rhinehart: A lot of it comes back to cost of delay. I think the NIH is an overwhelming force for good and puts billions of dollars towards scientific research and that's fantastic. If you want to do something new or innovative or fast, the NIH is probably not where you're going to go. You know what's funny? I was mapping research just today and found that in the past 15 years, the NIH alone has funded $127 million to research coronavirus. A number of publications have come out of this, but I just thought, "How could we not have a diagnostic with 15 years and a $127 million?"

Then reading through the papers, the paper quality is pretty strong. There's a lot of great basic science and basic research that happened. On the one hand, I do think that there's a role for basically high risk tolerance faster, like early stage investment mentality and research and academia. I think that'd be really important. There's a fantastic group called, "" that I think is doing some really great work there. I also think there's this disconnect between research and commercialization.

The NIH didn't have a grant to make a diagnostic. Now they do. Now they have a $500 million program to try to make an antigen diagnostic, which is exactly what I'm working on. All those years and all those tens of millions of dollars that was going just to research and there was no program to actually make a diagnostic or actually make a vaccine. I guess NIH was depending on the private market to just figure that out and nobody really went for it.

Eric Ries: Why not?

Robert Rhinehart: Biopharma is top down and the NIH was this way too. The NIH has all been about cancer, heart disease. Those are very important goals. They look at what's killing Americans and let's find ways there. Having a cure for cancer or heart disease, it's not that simple. There are all sorts of lifestyle factors. It's really a whole category of diseases. A ton of great strides have been made, but it's going to be a long and brutal road whereas an infectious disease, it just hasn't been as interesting an area of research and I think that's wrong.

I think what they're missing is the, in finance terms, is the volatility that yes the bigger market seems to be cancer and heart disease, but an infectious disease could just tear across the planet. There's all these warning signs. People have been talking about virus evolution and people have been talking about antibiotic resistant bacteria, and still there's just not as much attention from the NIH and definitely far less attention from the private market.

Eric Ries: I think all of us have learned a lesson in which experts heed, and the value even during normal times, of science-driven policy.

Robert Rhinehart: Yes.

Eric Ries: I think even a number of scientists that I've spoken to, when you start to get into this kind of conversation about how scientists funded, yes, there's enormous frustration with the status quo mechanisms, but just like we talked about with nutrition science, there's a reluctance to criticize, because that can easily become co-opted by people who have an agenda to discredit science and science driven policy. I think there's also a reflexive skepticism of bringing in concepts frankly from finance. Portfolio theory construction, alpha and beta into the science process.

It seems like that can't be right and yet it's precisely because we are not applying those concepts. They're really managerial concepts more than finance concepts of matching risk and reward and taking a diversified portfolio of approaches. Then recognizing the power of individual mavericks. Entrepreneurs, people who have a different view giving them the ability to run experiments, but not at great cost because there's also a lot of cranks and cooks and you wind up finding a lot of junk in order to get those few winners, that's the whole point.

Any venture capitalist will tell you, "That's why we take a wide spectrum of that at the seed stage." Have you had any luck overcoming that skepticism? How would you make the case to a scientist to say, "This is not an invasion of the scientific domain by bogus business concept." We've seen that in the past, but there's something new here and it's something really worth listening to.

Robert Rhinehart: The scientists would love it. The pushback is not going to be from the scientist themselves. You would get so much attention. Just think about the first venture funds that branded themselves with Founder Friendly. Before venture, equity financing was seen as a pretty unfriendly business. These corporate raiders, and these leverage buyouts and this private equity hatchet bin ... So investors were able to make a huge competitive edge for themselves by investing in founders and investing in founder-led companies.

Guess what? That wasn't a bad idea. A lot of the greatest, largest, most innovative companies came from that attitude shift. Let's fund a few mavericks and see what happens, or like YCombinator, let's give a lot of people a little bit of money instead of doing one giant deal a year. I think that was a really good idea. That just has not happened in science, whatsoever. It just shocks me. It seems like there is not a single institution that invests in research for profit.

The NIH just does not seem to be thinking about profits. They don't seem to be thinking about commercial, nor is that really commercialization, nor is that really their mandate, but why isn't there anyone that does have that mandate? Why doesn't anyone look at all the great work that's being done in these universities and finding what's close to commercialization and spinning it out? It's easier said than done, but there are certainly barriers there, but they could completely be overcome.

I think that's a huge gap in opportunity. That would be this I think beautiful thing to finally be able to bridge the worlds of science and finance, and also pressure researchers to focus to have more of a concept of commercialization and focus on science that could become technology. Traditionally, this was done at some large corporations like Bell Labs and Xerox Parc.

Eric Ries: We've hollowed out our corporations and very few have any research and development function at all.

Robert Rhinehart: Yeah, that culture has completely shifted. That's left an enormous gap. Basically, you have these very conservative government institutions financing things that are very large and very slow, and very safe, and you really don't have anyone looking for some of these founder personas in a researcher and a scientist. That's why I think that overall innovation has slowed, and a lot of start-ups are just business model innovations or sales, or operational angles. I really want to see more inventions. I want to see more inventors. I want to see more science being commercialized.

There's just this huge gulf. I think you're right that that would be huge to apply more science concepts like portfolio theory like, yes you can put the bulk of your money into something that is big, and slow, and safe. That's fine, but some percentage of it, find some rogues, find some independent thinkers, find some contrarians. There's no shortage of them, I promise you.

I heard from this great Caltech professor I was talking to, Rob Phillips and he was telling me about his application to the NIH. Rob Phillips is one of these contrarians, and was this big thinker, and it's amazing the way his mind works. He was telling me about how he just started at Caltech and people are giving him advice about filling out his NIH grant application. He said, "Okay, how do I get an NIH grant?" They say, "Here's what you do, Rob. You be as conservative as you can. Then you divide that by 10. Then you submit your application."

He did that, and he got it, and he says he still just lives in fear every day of losing it. Others are like there's this brilliant professor at UCLA who wants to study chronobiology, which I think is just incredibly forward thinking, incredibly fascinating, incredibly important field, but the NIH doesn't have the program. I told her the NIH is not ready for chronobiology. Where does that leave for the Navy, the DOE? Is chronobiology going to help us build better submarines, or missiles, or power plants? Probably not today.

Eric Ries: Yeah, we're missing a piece, so the funding of basic research that can advance human progress. I have been advocating for a long time for entrepreneurship as a subdiscipline of management. I think when people hear what you're saying, those who have been in science labs, and I've talked to a whole bunch during the pandemic where it's like, "Look, I'm a junior researcher. I have a radical theory that could make a big difference."

The only people like that who are actually doing any science right now are the ones who happen to be in a laboratory with a senior scientist who was senior enough to get enough grants so that they have extra slush fund of money that they can take some risks and no one needs to know about it. The actual funders are not willing, fast grants excepted, to back these kind of things. I really believe in that thesis and yet I think a lot of people listening will say, "Wait a minute, you're talking about turning science into a business. You're talking about funding cranks and cooks and contrarian is another term for outright troll. What happened to rigor, and discipline and process? Isn't that an important part of science and R&D?"

I think we have to develop a new branch of management to answer that question that criticism had on to say, "This is not just about randomly spreading money around to any random crank." There is a method to this, and we've figured it out for technology on the venture side after trial and error over many generations. Here is how you construct the venture portfolio. Here's how you make those kinds of bets. Here's how you avoid being taken in by frauds. We're not perfect by any means, but on the whole the system works, and yet when I talk to people who are in technology transfer offices in universities, they're completely disconnected from that ecosystem.

Most universities, their tech transfer office is more concerned with protecting the university's IP, which often prevents it from being commercialized in the first place, in contrast with what Stanford University did under Fred Terman's pioneering leadership to get computer science innovations out of the lab and into private industry. The other thing I think is really important about this, and I want to see how this sits with you. A lot of this is about who will will have power in our society in the future?

If we're not willing to have the scientists who have breakthroughs become entrepreneurs commercialize that research and become the wealthy philanthropist of the next generation, it's not like those people won't exist. We're just saying, "They're going to be from a different background." We're not going to have scientists making philanthropic choices and not pushing our society in that direction. I think that would be a shame

Robert Rhinehart: Who are we depending on now? The cottage industry or family offices, I think that there's definitely a role to play for the powers that be, but I think empowering that scientific mindset and empowering the inventor, and empowering the founder, and the bold researcher, or the philosopher kings and the inventor founders, yeah I think that they should have more power. I think that they should have more money. I think they should have more say.

Eric Ries: So let me take it back to the tools for research that you're building, because I think one of the really interesting things about your story is that, whereas a lot of people are working on a diagnostic or they're working on a new drug, or they're working on some relief effort related to the pandemic, PPE for frontline workers, or hunger or you name it. You've thrown yourself into this specific project of building a diagnostic, but you also from the beginning had this idea that you could increase the leverage of your impact by creating and then selling tools that accelerate other's research.

It almost to me has that platform feeling like we see in software all the time. There's a software way of thinking about biology to this. Is that what you had in your mind at the time? What's that been like?

Robert Rhinehart: I didn't really think of it as software specifically. I just thought of it as I just really like revenue. I like a business that is selling something. I just remember from Paul Graham that you just learn so much more talking to a customer or getting a customer to pay some amount of money for something a lot of times than you will being heads down in the lab for years. I think that's a big shortcoming.

The reason why a lot of people are afraid to invest in this so-called deep technology companies is they think that it's a total binary they think that they're just going to work in some advanced laboratory for 10 years and burn hundreds of millions of dollars, and maybe they'll have something huge, maybe it'll be nothing. I just don't believe in that. I think that a scientific company, a company that's based on an innovation can find and should find a way to make revenues early.

So that was the idea here. I thought that, "Hey, I feel really good about this diagnostic." I'm really going to work on that. I think it's going to be big. We definitely need an antigen diagnostic, but no matter what, I know that I need a pseudovirus and other people need a pseudovirus. I know that I need pure spike protein. I know that I need the structure of the full length spike protein and a lot of other people need these things. So you know what? I'm going to make it and I'm going to tell it to them.

Eric Ries: Again, let me push back a little bit, because I think people who are not from an entrepreneurial background are going to be confused. They can say, "Wait a minute, you went into this to make money?" That can't possibly be right given your previous background, but I know this is a philanthropic enterprise. Try to explain why revenue is important to you not for the money itself, but as a way of learning things that you wouldn't be able to learn any other way and maybe give some examples of things that surprised you that you were able to learn by having that focus that maybe strictly nonprofit lab wouldn't have been able to.

Robert Rhinehart: Sure. First of all, there's nothing wrong about making money. In fact, that's how companies have the abilities that they do. That's how they can hire people. That's how they can buy the equipment and train the people, and build out supply chains. Revenue is a lifeblood of a company. I don't really believe in a company that is just a research project. I don't believe a company should just only raise money and hopefully release some world-changing product years and years from now. More often than not, that doesn't happen.

I do think a company should get to revenues early and find a way to do that, especially these so-called deep tech companies. That's not the only point. Revenue is a means to an end. Really, what I want is to get this diagnostic out. Really, what I want is to support the development of a vaccine therapeutic. The world needs a lot out of the biotech industry right now. The biotech industry also has needs.

Selling the pseudovirus that is, there's exactly the idea behind a public benefit corporation or social entrepreneurship is that you're providing value and you're making money. I'm not going to price gouge anyone, I'm not going to sell to someone that has ill will or on a various intent with these tools, but there's absolutely a need for other people doing work on the virus for these tools, and they have budgets. I think they are willing to pay for these products, especially because the market for these products has gone insane.

Pure spike protein is going for $4 million a grant right now. It's incredibly expensive. Not only making that and selling it at a lower cost, but also researching methods to make it and purify it at better skills is a way to both make money and advance the science.

Eric Ries: Give an example of something you've learned because that was your focus that maybe you wouldn't have learned otherwise.

Robert Rhinehart: I learned a lot. I think the pseudovirus is a very interesting tool, and should be a very important tool for infectious disease research. I learned a lot about what's called, "the virus packaging signal." I think the way that a virus replicates itself is frankly somewhat elegant, and it almost reminds me of the idea of compression from software that it's amazing how much information is packed into so small of a package and how much is done with so little, and the way the virus has evolved to do things at that way.

Researching the pseudovirus got me into these virus-like particles, and there's a lot of people that's been researching vaccines based on virus-like particles. I've learned a lot about the difference between the pseudovirus and the live coronavirus. One thing that's very important, one thing I learned is probably that I'm running into this issue that Pamela Bjorkman, this brilliant Caltech researcher called this out is that for pseudoviruses, it's important that not only are you making the full length spike protein, but is that properly got glycosylated? Do you have the right density?

If you're using this lentivirus vector, so lentivirus HIV maybe has seven to 10 spike proteins on its surface, but coronavirus has 50, 60. If you're using a lentivirus backbone, how many spike proteins are you going to end up with? How is that going to affect the performance of your assays? Making these synthetic viruses has been a really fascinating project and it's also got me to talking to a lot of people about, "Hey, maybe the pseudovirus isn't just a tool for research. Maybe it's something very like the pseudovirus could be a vaccine."

The way vaccines work traditionally is that you inject either a piece of the virus or the infectious agent or you inject an inactivated version of the virus and then you trust your immune system to recognize it and go after it, but not be overwhelmed, because it's noninfectious or it's less infection. I thought, "Okay, so the optimization there would be you want something as similar as possible to the live virus without being infectious." Hey, that's what the pseudovirus is.

If you take the pseudovirus a step farther instead of only replacing the full length spike protein, you would also want to replace the membrane protein, the envelope protein, the nucleocapsid protein, which is how the RNA gets tightly wound up coiled inside the capsid or the membrane, the surface of the virus. So that's gotten me into this fascinating field, which is I think this very fertile area of research and vaccines, which is to use these VLPs, these virus like particles that really are very similar to the pseudovirus.

Originally on vision, the pseudovirus addresses this tool for research. I needed it, other labs need it, I can provide it to them, but hey now, I'm on this interesting path of “is this what the future of viral vaccines looks like.”

Eric Ries: I want to get to the vaccine topic, but I want to go back and just ask you a question, maybe you can think, just give me a short answer about this too. I think it's a really critical point and I think these people who are really not going to follow why you're doing this is a for profit corporation. I'm trying to get you to give an example of something that you learned or something unexpected that's happened so far that happened because you are selling this and treating the other research labs that you interact with as a customer rather than just as a grantee. You know what I'm saying?

Robert Rhinehart: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Eric Ries: What is it about the entrepreneurs/customer mentality? Why is that important to what you're doing?

Robert Rhinehart: I think it's important because sales is a lot about understanding your customer's needs, not just pushing something on them.

Eric Ries: Who's your customer in this case?

Robert Rhinehart: For the pseudovirus, I am my own customer, because the diagnostic is using it, but other research labs such as Max Planck and Caltech and some other universities and even some other start-ups, some private enterprises that are looking to run assays or even contract us to run assays with their compounds. It's both research institutions and companies. Research institutions, they buy reagents, they buy tools from Thermo Fisher, from ATCC.

If Thermo Fisher didn't exist, if Sigma Aldrich didn't exist and as for profit companies, I don't think science would not be nearly as successful. We need these platform technologies. We need these companies that provide the basic tools and components for people to do their work, but then they fall short. Thermo Fisher isn't selling a pseudovirus, ATCC is not selling a pseudovirus. So that creates market opportunity.

In talking to these customers, you learn more about your product itself. In talking to this Caltech Lab, I found, okay I need to be sure. Not only do I have the full length spike protein, do I have enough of these spike proteins and are these spike proteins properly glycosylated? I'm pressured to continually improve my product to the demands of that customer.

Eric Ries: Now, talk about your work with vaccines. It sounds like you're taking a different approach than others who are trying to bring a vaccine to market quickly.

Robert Rhinehart: I spoke with various institutions working on vaccines. I wouldn't say that The Corona Initiative is itself developing its own vaccine at least for now, but I would say the most promising vaccine effort I've seen is something coming out of Caltech at the Bjorkman Lab. First of all, virology hasn't been that sexy of a field in science. They are not that take your average institution. Maybe 1% of your PIs are going to be virologists, maybe less. There just hasn't been that much attention on infectious disease and viruses.

There is a huge burst of interest in the wake of HIV-AIDS epidemic and that has been what the Bjorkman Lab has been focused on to date and had some fascinating results. I also talked to the VGTI Institute at OHSU. They've been researching AIDS for 30 years. I also ran into an interesting issue there which is that they had such amazing results. It seemed like they got a vaccine, multiple vaccines that worked really, really well in primates.

I just couldn't help but ask why didn't this get commercialized? Why didn't this go to market? They just said, "Oh, we don't do that. We're set-up for research and we did some great research. Then we left it." They're continuing to improve it, but it was so frustrating, because it seemed like the results they got were so promising. I'm sure that it would of course take a ton of work still to take that to market, but it just seemed interesting why did nobody take that leap? Why did nobody spin that out? Why did nobody invest in that company or start that company?

Again, there's that divide. Nobody at that institution was encouraged to commercialize it. They just went onto the next grant, onto the next publication.

Eric Ries: Yeah. If you ever want to have a really depressing day, all you have to do is while you're on a tour of any of the existing remaining corporate research labs, just sit with researchers and say, "Hey, tell me about a promising invention you had in the lab here that was never commercialized," and just bust out your violin while they tell you story after story after story of places where as a society, we were willing to spend the $5 or $10 million for them to do the basic research behind it, but then we wouldn't spend the one or two extra million dollars that would have been necessary to run the experiment to see if it was worth commercializing.

Robert Rhinehart: Then you do look at the companies that raise $50, $100 million and think about how innovative their product was really.

Eric Ries: Yeah, talk about the short-term thinking and the lack of long-term vision that has infected our society and our institutions at every level.

Robert Rhinehart: Every level.

Eric Ries: This is like one of those symptoms that if you just look under the hood for a minute, let's say this does not make sense, and something is deeply wrong with the society that pays lip service to the need for science and wants to have technology driven progress, and yet is not really willing to make those long-term investments, does not have a commitment seeing things successfully commercialized. It sounds crass, but it's actually, that is the purpose of invention. It doesn't serve people. Why did we do it?

Robert Rhinehart: Here's a question I ask myself a lot. If you want to be a lawyer, or a politician, or civil engineer, you have a career path. You basically know where you can go. For a lot of those professions, okay, I can go for this bigger company, smaller company, and medium size company, whatever but you know where to go. If you want to be an inventor, where do you go? What company? What lab? What institution? Where can you go and say, "Hey, all right. I'm going to pay you to invent things, and we're going to launch those things." That seems like a really important function for society.

Eric Ries
: Yeah. It's a shame. I think 21st century organizations are going to have to embrace this as a corporate discipline, as an organizational discipline. This is true for governments and nonprofits, and research labs alike. The good news if you will is that because most organizations are so short-term focused, and they're so under-optimized, under-investing in invention, those that are early in adapting this new way of working are just going to run circles around the ones that don't.

Robert Rhinehart: Yeah, definitely. I am optimistic. Maybe you can meet in the middle and maybe some of these long-term thinking companies can find a way to make revenue and can find a way to survive, and can find some degree or short-term success in order to get them to the future.

Eric Ries: What do you think is going to be the long-term impact of the crisis? I know we can't really make accurate predictions right now. We're still in the middle of the chaos, but what do you at least hope will be some things that we as society take away from what has gone wrong?

Robert Rhinehart
: Some basic things. I think overall, people are going to be more comfortable working from home and letting their employees work from home or telecommute. Hopefully that translates to less traffic, and less stress in commuting and less emissions. I definitely think there are some positive lifestyle and environmental outcomes that I hope last for a long time if not forever.

Eric Ries: Let's hope. Rob, I want to thank you for taking time to have this conversation and of course for the work that you're doing. Where do you think we'd go from here? How do we get out of the crisis?

Robert Rhinehart: Finally, the NIH is coming out with these grant programs, but I do think there's room for a lot, a room for organizations like fastgrants and fast, decisive, focus on projects that can get results quickly. I hope that we find better ways to spin out technology and commercialized technology that has been developed in these institutions. I hope we develop new institutions, places for inventors, places for people maybe not quite conservative enough for traditional institutions.

I hope we focus more on infectious disease and more on biotech companies, and also ways to shore up our supply chains. It looks like maybe it was a little inefficient and fragile to ship all sorts of products around the globe. I hope that we get this back to basics infrastructure, and know how, and understanding them to make our own food closer to home, and make our own cement, and find ways to be more self-reliant, and hopefully maybe even stronger communities, people investing in their neighborhoods and spending more time with their families and not always commuting and at work.

Eric Ries: Resilience I think will be a new watch word when we get to the new normal.

Robert Rhinehart: Yeah.

Eric Ries: I want to thank you for the part you’re playing to get us there.

Robert Rhinehart: I really like that resilience word. Yeah, one of my all-time favorite philosophies was transcendentalism. I really think a lot of the origins of American culture is rooted in this and I feel like we've gotten away from it a little bit. So transcendentalism is based on the belief that people are good if you give them freedom, and because people are good, you should give them more freedom. There's also this powerful idea of self-reliance and this idea that you should know how to take care of yourself, and your family, and your community, and you should be able to rely on yourself.

It definitely still work together, but I think that's a very powerful idea and I think both of those have fallen out of favor now that it's so easy to just order something online or Google something instead of really, really learn it or get trained, or teach. I hope that there's greater depth of knowledge and understanding to come from that and ways that we can really support ourselves and rely on ourselves not on very distant or very large, very complex corporations and supply chains.

Eric Ries: Awesome. Robert, really thank you for your time and for all your work in this area.

Robert Rhinehart: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Eric Ries: This has been Out of the Crisis. I'm Eric Ries. Out of the Crisis is produced by Ben Ehrlich, edited by Jacob Tender and Sean McGuire. Music composed and performed by Cody Martin. Hosting by Breaker. For more information on COVID-19 crisis and ways you can help, visit If you are working on a project related to the pandemic, please reach out to me on Twitter. I'm @ericries. Thanks for listening.

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