Diving Into Bioinformatics From Scratch

Disclaimer: I have zero background in biology. Well, my dad is a bio-chemist and my sister a biotechnological assistant. Apart from that, nothing. This article aims to sum up how I'm tackling the problematic of having to learn the basics like what the nucleus is and how the RNA-polymerase works, as well as the deep dive into bioinformatics, especially genomic, transcriptomic and proteomic analysis.  It's a living document and will be updated over time.

Background story: I recently turned 30. Having spent my past 15 years developing and selling web-services I used my past year trying to figure out what I wanna do next. The most reasonable move would be to build a business in existing networks, like the video games industry, but while I love the people in there, I don't see much room for SaaS companies without suffering from this industry's volatility. So I went ahead asking myself "Where do I want to spend my next 15 years?". It's important to have a big time horizon. And the answer to that might be Life Science and Bioinformatics.

Last year I was evaluating new business cases. I networked across plenty of industries. The web/SaaS landscape is more and more saturated and money is being shifted from R&D towards sales and marketing. So I'd rather want to take my knowledge and apply it to a more specific domain. At some point last year I stumbled upon some bioinformaticians and found myself evaluating a case that was about RNA-sequence analysis as Software-as-a-Service (variant calling, gene expression and alternative splicing).  We didn’t end up working together. The case as such didn't work out. It was hard to pin point a narrowed down enough use-case and target group at promising scale. A generalised and customizable pipeline platform for the diverse amount of analytics use-cases? Something like lifebit.ai? I was not quite sure about that. Of course it'd make sense. It's all dockerizable. But I’m rather questioning prevalent market dynamics.

The bioinformatic industry, from a commercial perspective, is quite immature. But that doesn't matter for now. I finally found myself  excited again, about a topic, not a business case. And this is exactly what it takes: Outside entrepreneurs bringing in new perspectives. My decision is not to based on a get-rich-quick scheme, but rather derives from questioning my very own purpose and meaning in life. Being able to make a difference in life science feels so much better than adding value to the entertainment industry (where I have many good friends, don't get me wrong). There were plenty of promising business cases around, but none of them hooked me like this one.

Having no biological background I need to catch up in various ways. Before we go on, it’s important to know that I already have a specific case I want to work on. And we already have a chief scientific officer (PhD. Molecular Oncology from MIT and post-doc at Harvard) on our side and a chief technology officer (M.Sc. IT Systems Engineering). So I'm not starting to go into a random direction without a clear path to follow. But there is no way around taking some serious time to catch up. I want to know what I'm talking about.

1. Catching Up With The Basics - YouTube

I’ll start with simple crash courses on biology and chemistry. The last time I dealt with these topics were in high school. The idea here is simple: watch each video, write down the basic stuff. My sole goal is to get to a stage of “having heard of it” and basic understanding of what is important later on. Watch, sum-up, read, re-read, done. Thanks god there is Youtube. These playlists contain great crash courses. I used a YT-video downloader to have them available offline so that I can watch them during travels.

a) Crash Course Chemistry

b) Crash Course Biology

c) Crash Course Bio-Chemistry

d) Crash Course Anatomy-Physiology (including the immune-system)

You can work through and understand this in a matter of a few days. It's about getting the fundamentals.

2. Online Courses 

From here on I'll follow up with some certifiable MOOCs.

The first one is an introduction to biology on EDX: It's a MIT course which focuses more on the basics of biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, recombinant DNA, genomics and rational medicine.

The next step is then to take this on a bioinformatics level. This John Hopkins course by Steven Salzberg is the perfect way to dive into Genomic Technologies. Salzberg plays an important role in bioinformatics and it’s easy to listen to him.

I would have loved to dive into this course about immuno-oncology offered by Harvard, but I don't want to spend 800$ on it. There was another course from the University of Berkley about cancer immunotherapy, but unfortunately, it's not available anymore. I’m aiming to create a list of resources about immuno-oncology and chimeric antigen t-cell therapy, once I get to the topic. 

3. A Degree, Maybe?


As entrepreneur you know that there’s no need to have a degree in any field. Learn what is necessary, be an autodidact. Look at Elon Musk, right? No one ever asked what he studied. In fact, the “real entrepreneur-image” is to have no degree at all and drop out of whatever you can drop out. Also, Naval just said “If you need a degree to do it, it's not going to make you wealthy”. And he might be right here. 

I changed my mind: I got reminded that never really believed in our educational system. I'll learn what I need alongside my entrepreneurial journey. Knowledge is available everywhere and it's free. Look at this biology introduction for computer scientists from Stanford.

It's a valuable idea to pursue a degree if it comes with an overseeable amount of effort and contains just the things I should have heard of. Also if it fits a long term goal (speaking decades) it might be helpful as well. 

See, I need to catch up on a lot of things anyway. If there is a master that allows me to learn remote and flexible, is affordable and part-time and doesn't take longer than a year, then this is a good way to learn and having a degree which in science provides at least slightly more authority than my B.Sc. in Business Computing. 
This one would have been a great option: M.Sc. Omics Data Analysis at Universidad de Vic.

  • Affordable (~5500€)
  • 16 hours per week
  • 100% remote (I can even do my exams remotely)
  • 20% theory, 80% practical | very hands-on
  • 60 ECTS which is a manageable amount of work
  • Can be split across two years should the learning amount be too much

It’s not perfect, but close. Another option would have been a M.Sc. in Bio Data Science at Biotech Campus Tulln, but unfortunately they have a strong compulsory attendance. Should business overwhelm me sooner, I can still split or drop out. Until then I’m able to dive into genomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics, proteomics and interactomics. I'm a product guy and convinced that a thought through customer journey and experience are key. I want to be hands on for a bit to better understand my target group and the critics I heard about the industry. I need to feel it.

4. Podcasts For On The Go

It depends what kind of a learning type you are. I'm more the reading-type. But nevertheless, especially as non-native English speaker, it is important to actively listen to your topic. Not only to deepen your knowledge but also to have all these new words spoken out and in context. Here are some podcasts I came across

Yale Journey of Biology and Medicine (Spotify-Link)

Deals a lot with genetics.

Big Biology (Spotify-Link)

Deals with biology in general.

For Whom The Cells Tolls: Biology, Cancer, and Other Stories About Life (Spotify-Link)

Deals with cell biology, cancer - the title says it all.

a16z Podcast (Spotify-Link)

This one is from the famous venture capital firm AndreesenHorowitz. Healthcare, Medtech and Biotech are frequent topics in this podcast from a more market oriented perspective.

Biologie Passion Podcast (German, Spotify-Link)

The last one is a German one but it greatly leads through all things genetics.

In order to stay more up to date, I can also recommend Labiotech's list of podcasts.

5. Utilize And Organize Social Media

Keep platforms organized

For that I created a custom reddit-feed for bioinformatics and a Twitter-list for bioinformatics.

"Understand one tweet per day"

The idea goes as follows:
1. Follow active industry professionals on Twitter 
2. Once per day, take 10 minutes to read the tweet list
3. Try to understand each tweet. Once you get stuck, look up words you don't understand, follow the link and try to grasp what it is about. 

My assumption is that doing this for a maximum of 10-15 minutes per day will not only deepen my knowledge by also give me a sense what the industry is working on as of now, while I'm catching up with the basics. 

6. Reading The News

Another 15 minutes per day should go down for reading the news. Consuming headlines as well as reading 1-2 articles add up to the "understanding one tweet per day" to understand what is happening within the industry but also what makes it into the news.

News to follow:


More in-depth articles can be found here: https://academic.oup.com/gbe - and it might help me to continuously read through some abstracts.

7. Talking To Experts 

This is kinda obvious and I'm mentioning it last as it involves other people. Talking to experts is gold. You want to make sure though to not waste their time. But asking for specifics and small explanations during evaluation of our business case and market research is essential and grows my knowledge on a daily basis. That also counts for chatting with my co-founders.

That's it for now. You’ll be able to follow my journey on this blog. Any valuable resources for me? Let me know @philippzentner

Disclaimer: This plan might change by tomorrow. Business comes first. I'll keep you posted.