The interdisciplinary nature of genomics makes meeting people outside of you area of expertise and important part of developing new ideas. What better way to do that, than by enjoying a nice cup of morning coffee overlooking the Pacific Ocean?

FLG: What is the Genomics Coffee Club?

Brendan Gallagher: The concept is originally borrowed from the entrepreneurial tech community. They have a variety of these open coffee clubs in different cities around the world. So we’re basically borrowing from that. It allows us to set up a recurring meeting that acts as a hub for the genomics community in whichever city the club is happening in. It’s still in its infancy, but it’s essentially an open meeting where anyone can come and discuss genomics at a set time in San Diego

Michael Heltzen: It’s to let people get closer to insider information- so not just what you read in the news, but rather getting to talk to other people on a more personal level with other perspectives on our industry. Genomics is a very inter-disciplinary field, we have people who work in wet labs, as physicians, bioinformaticians, business people. Our wish is to bring these people together because we all have the same goal: making genomics work.

FLG: How was the Genomics Coffee Club born?

BG: I had just gotten into San Diego, which is one of the leading genomics cities in the world, and I was just looking to meet as many people as possible. So I was actually looking for something like a genomics coffee club. I was meeting a couple of people a week, and getting different referrals. Eventually I got connected to Michael as someone I should try talk to.

MH: I moved to San Diego a couple of years ago, because I consider San Diego the capital of genomics. I’d been very active in networking in that time as well, and had a few people from the industry meeting up informally for beer and chats every once in a while. Then Brendan came along and told me he had this idea to formalise the meeting to every two weeks. Then via some common connections, we ended up talking over that idea and that’s how the Genomics Coffee Club started. We get some nice support from the Bella Vista Social Club & Caffé, who let us meet there and sell us some good coffee. We’re also setting up an afternoon club that is going to be more of a networking and beer event. BG: So it’s been born, but it’s evolving into multiple cities and multiple kinds of events now.

FLG: What are your personal motivations?

BG: It’s a really fascinating field, and I really like learning and talking about genomics. As Michael was saying, the dynamics of this club really allow you to get all of those different perspectives. If you’re only talking to one of those subsets, you’re missing out on the bigger picture. I do think that there tends to be myopia in the industry, with people focused on their specific pieces.

MH: It’s a little bit the same from my perspective. When I started realising 10 or 15 years ago that IT and biology were starting to merge together, and that we could digitise life and utilise the powers of IT to look into things like our own health, that was a huge motivation for me to get into the first start-up I participated in. I’ve done nothing else ever since! So that’s my motivation, the chance to have a big impact on the world with something as great as genomics.

FLG: What can people expect from a typical meetings?

BG: In the mornings, we have introductions from any new members. Then people can make any announcements they might have – if they’re looking for a job, or they’re looking to hire someone or promote an event. The host then runs through what’s been in the news on genomics, or on-going topics that people like to discuss. Then we wrap up promptly on the hour, as people are pretty busy and have to go to their day jobs!

MH: Well, Brendan just described the starting point and the end point! But the 45 minutes when we start talking about the news, is when we often spark conversations. One of the interesting things about these meetings is, that sometimes you’ll talk about a new technology – the researcher will get very excited, but the clinician will say “oh no, not another one!”, and then the bioinformatician will say “actually we really like this one because it gives us longer reads” to which another might say “we don’t actually need longer reads! We’d be happier if there was just some consistency in how we do sequencing”. We might be talking about a disease, or a technology, ethics or a political topic – we hit those genomic conversations from all angles because we have people with extremely deep insight. When we talk about some of these issues, we’re talking with people for whom this is their life. It’s very interesting to hear their perspectives as a lot of the time they are literally part of the news we’re talking about.

When we sit down and talk about these topics – it can almost become a little tense at times. People are really eager to participate and talk about the newest insights about what is going on in the industry. It’s a nice setting, and we have a nice cup of coffee, but the meetings are really intense actually. A lot of really deep knowledge is exchanged, and I think that’s a big attraction for the people who participate. There’s access to information that can be found nowhere else.

BG: The culture is extremely focused. No one is checking their phone, no one is on their computer – the meeting is 100% engaged. I’ve not been in a meeting like that for quite some time – at least not since the advent of smart phones!

MH: That being said, it is a very friendly group of people. The intensity comes from an eagerness to present different points of view. I often leave a meeting thinking, “oh my God, I just had my world rocked once again, on a Thursday morning!” It’s an impressive setting to be able to do that.

Genomics coffee club

FLG: Who typically shows up? Any regulars?

MH: Normally we have about 10 people, with five of those being regulars. We have people from very small start-ups, all the way up to the very biggest companies in the industry. And people at various different positions within those companies. I think that maybe we’re skewing a bit towards the industry and commercial people. We do have, and welcome, people from academia, but it does tend to be mostly industry at the moment. That might be because we started out by inviting out of our own networks.

BG: We’d love to get more people earlier on in their careers, be they in industry or academia. That’s definitely a segment of people we’d like to have more involved.

FLG: What plans do you have for developing the concept?

MH: We want to support the branching out to new cities globally, by having a better online platform. We want the new chapters up and running, so we don’t develop something, we think other people need. We follow the lean start-up philosophy, and are waiting until there is a concrete need – then we develop exactly what is needed. Our next coffee meeting is already going to have the co-hosts of the San Francisco chapter. So if you’re interested, come down and visit us in San Diego and see how we run the meetings! Brendan is actually going to be in San Francisco for a little bit, to help kick start some of these meetings up there.

BG: To add to that – we’re also very thankful for the support we’ve had in setting up these meetings up from the Bella Vista Social Club & Caffé. It’s a beautiful place, overlooking the Pacific Ocean! We’re also starting the first Genomic Beer meetings. The big different there is: the Genomic Coffee Club is more of a round table discussion that’s really geared for about 10-15 people – whereas the Genomic Beer, is more of a social networking event that is much less structured. But hopefully it is still going to be something fun and valuable to the people who attend.

MH: Definitely. We should also thank our sponsors who have helped make all of this possible – Chempetitive Group and AllSeq. Chempetitive have been really supportive of us, and will be supportive of other chapters as well – so they definitely deserve at least a little bit of recognition! You guys at Front Line Genomics also have our warm thanks for your support as well! As much as people in the genomics community like to support each other, it’s been great having you guys involved to help us take these conversations to a global level. Being able to send you over the notes from the meetings and having you work them into what you do it means that we really have a voice that helps us lift these things to a higher level.

FLG: How can people get involved? 

MH: People who want to get involved in a meeting as member, should keep an eye on whether or not there is a coffee club in their respective city. As you know, we’re setting up in San Francisco very actively. We also want to make sure that anyone who has the time and energy, and who wants to set up a Coffee Club – that they know that they can reach out to Brendan and I, and we will support them in their efforts. There are some obvious places that we’re looking for co-hosts – Boston, and Cambridge in the UK. We are actively open to engaging with people who have the time and energy to maintain a club one in their city.

BG: We also have our website – that’s where you’ll find the latest announcements on what’s coming up, and is also where to go if you want to contact us about setting up a new chapter!

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