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Alinta Furnell
Portrait of Alinta Furnell
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in March 2023

Alinta is a proud Australian of Indonesian and European heritage. She grew up in the South of Sydney. Alinta is the co-founder & Co-CEO at Synbiote, a startup focussed on improving global welfare by increasing the accessibility of biotechnology. She is also an Adjunct Associate Lecturer at UNSW Biotechnology & Biomolecular Sciences and the Regional Head of Asia Pacific of iGEM Startups.  

Prior to Synbiote, Alinta co-founded another startup called Aurora MedTech which aimed to develop rapid antigen tests for STIs. In her spare time Alinta likes to play music and has recently started learning how to knit.
I met Alinta in early 2022 when we were both participating in Blackbirds’ Wild Futures competition, where we had the opportunity to pitch and cultivate a deep-tech startup idea to Blackbird’s investment team, founders and academics. My team pitched Eddai, an AI-powered LMS system beneficial to both teachers and students, and Alinta pitched her startup Synbiote which at the time was developing a process optimisation device for the biomanufacturing pipeline. While my founding and startup journey ended at the close of Wild Futures, Alinta has continued on with Synbiote. It’s taken her to international pitching competitions in Europe, participating in the Creative Co-operative’s Anyone Can program and many more programs and accelerators. It’s very interesting to reflect on the divergent paths that the two of us went on in the following year, despite participating in the same startup competition. 

As a naturally more risk-averse person, I find Alinta’s courage and faith in herself, to go all in with Synbiote, absolutely incredible. It’s also rare to see as many young POC female founders, backing themselves in the startup space. To see her blazing ahead, truly inspires me. I wanted to interview her to showcase what it’s truly like to be a founder, all the ups and downs in the founding process and understand more of her journey and experience that has led her to where she is now. 

I hope Alinta’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
Growing up, did you ever expect to be where you are now?
No way. Throughout highschool and even as I was starting university, I always expected that I would follow a linear career path. Looking back, I was very rigid in planning this out as in the back of my mind, I always wanted a job description and set role to tell me who to be.

Honestly, getting into startups felt out of the question to me and didn’t even feel like an option. Becoming a founder was a bit of a shocker to me too.

However, I did recently uncover a whole bunch of totally forgotten home videos from when I was aged 9 where I was “pitching” a bunch of random inventions I had made from objects around my house. I guess in a cheesy way, we really do always find our way back home.
What drew you into the startup space?
When I was still studying, I had a taste of being in a startup with Aurora MedTech and I absolutely loved it. For the first time, I felt as though I was out of autopilot and I could see that the progress I was making was having a tangible outcome. This was especially different to the jobs I’d had where it felt like the processes I carried out day after day were what defined me and that in turn, my progress was defined by others.

Now, as a full-time founder, I’m particularly grateful for the flexibility of routine and the opportunities that I’ve been given access to. For example, last year, my startup was sponsored to pitch at a conference in Europe. Being surrounded by ambitious founders from around the world, the atmosphere almost felt electric. It’s safe to say that taking the risk has opened up so many doors that I never knew were there.
What was the origin story behind Synbiote?
Our original pitch was to make biomaterials in space! While still a very worthwhile cause, we realised that if we wanted to travel beyond the earthly realm, we’d need to fix what’s happening down here first. 

At its core, the mission for Synbiote is to improve global welfare by increasing the accessibility of biotechnology in our everyday lives. Although we have gone through many many many iterations since our first dream of going to space, we’ve always kept focussed on this as our north star.
In early 2022, you quit full time work and went all in with Synbiote. What prompted this decision? What have you learnt about yourself in the past year?
It was totally uncharted territory. This was the first time since I was 15 that I had no income coming in, and it was the first time where I fully comprehended that I wouldn’t have the linear career path that I had desperately planned out for myself. 

But at the same time, it was also super exciting! I made the leap as Synbiote had just secured a tenancy in the laboratories at UNSW - I knew that this was something I just couldn’t miss. I was also in a very fortunate position having both savings and my family to support me. 

I learnt so much about myself in the past year. In some ways, this decision also felt like the first time that I was deciding what to do based on what I wanted to do, rather than what I had felt pressured to go into. I grew up always thinking I had to have everything mapped out, planned, and within a box - this felt like the complete opposite of that.

Along the way, the best piece of advice I’ve been given was to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are and to really hone in on your strengths and what energises you, rather than desperately try and fix your weaknesses. Although it seems simple, this was really a game changer for me to realise I didn’t have to be the best at everything at every given time. That’s what your co-founders and team are for!

Over the past year, I’ve really worked on increasing my tolerance for risk and increasing my comfort levels to sit with uncertainty. I’m excited for what comes next!
At your previous startup, Aurora Medtech, you were mostly working in the background, and let your other co-founders do the front-facing work of pitching. What gave you the confidence to get more into public speaking and start pitching Synbiote in front of mass audiences?
I had always wanted to be at the forefront of the action, but I honestly just didn’t consider it to be an option for me. I had an absolutely huge fear of being in the spotlight - there was even a point in time when I would see other people speaking in public and would feel physically ill myself.

I had to quickly get over the nerves of speaking in front of people when I was voted in as the President of my university’s biotechnology society. I’ll never forget that even then, I was lowkey trembling while leading my first meeting in a boardroom of only 10 people.

I’m definitely glad that I got over it though! Being able to reach and share our vision to an audience has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my role. I’ve always loved writing, so being able to communicate the words on the page really felt like the last piece in the puzzle.
What can we expect from Synbiote in the near future?
While still focussing on our mission to improve global welfare by increasing the accessibility of biotechnology, we are now in the process of developing the next generation of non-alcoholic beers!

This is something that’s super exciting to me! As a longtime non-drinker, I’ve always noticed that there was a glaring gap in the market for non-alcoholic beverages that are equally as healthy as they are tasty. There was only so many times I could be on the waters before taking matters into my own hands.

Unlike current alternatives, ours will be 0.00% ABV with no alcohol by-products, no refined sugar, and no added sweeteners.

Given our background in science, we are also planning experiments to investigate why some people experience hangovers and indigestion issues from the current non-alcoholic beers on the market.

We are currently in the development phase with recipe-making and panel testing before rolling it out to the wider Sydney community.

Our goal is to channel profits from this brand back into our scientific R&D - there are still so many problems in the deep tech space that we aim to solve.
on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
I absolutely loved growing up mixed-race. 

Especially being second-generation, there were definitely times when I was faced with culture clashes from what’s considered to be the Australian norm. Sleepovers and staying out past 10PM? Forget it.

However, growing up, there was rarely a moment where I felt out of place or like I didn’t belong as a “fourth culture kid”. Having so many second-generation friends, it really felt as though we were navigating these waters and forging our identities together.

I feel so grateful to have been exposed to such a diverse range of cultures, ideas, and values. It taught me to continuously curate my own code of conduct, rather than do things just for the sake of culture or tradition without understanding the reason why.

My relationship with my Asian Australian identity has largely remained the same - I count myself fortunate to have grown up in such a supportive environment that celebrated my identity and never made me feel as though it was something I had to hide. 
How has your family supported you along this ‘unconventional’ career path?
I’m grateful that my parents raised both my sister and I with the mindset that we could choose whatever we wanted, as long as we gave it 100%. As with many people who are the first in their field within the family, my family largely has no idea what I’m up to but they’re very much supportive nonetheless.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
Among many memories that came from going to Mandarin Saturday School for 8 years, one of my favourites was being taught how to do Chinese calligraphy by my grandparents when they visited Australia.

Although my Mandarin is now extremely rusty, I still have all of the calligraphy that we did together.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
At the moment it’s definitely kue jongkong! This is an Indonesian dessert made with pandan, coconut, and palm sugar - the flavour combinations are unmatched, it’s salty, sweet, and savoury all at the same time. There’s also just something about molten palm sugar that’s unbeatable…
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
Priyanka Ashraf. Priyanka is doing some amazing things with The Creative Co-Operative. I had the privilege of working with her during the Anyone Can Program and it was so inspiring to see her passion for amplifying and empowering underrepresented voices in the Australian startup ecosystem.