Bio & Life Sciences

Next Week’s Techonomy Bio: A Focus on Systems of Life

eb418553-07d1-4b93-a9a9-55b436540ddfAt last year’s Techonomy Bio, we put venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson on a panel of investors. In his enthusiasm for the unbridled potential of innovation in the life sciences to transform society, Jurvetson at one point said “we’re sitting on a can of miracles.” Why a can? He did not say, but his observation became a kind of touchstone for us at Techonomy for why we continue to build this event.

“Sitting on a Can of Miracles” is what we’re calling this year’s session on investing in bio-progress. Jurvetson himself we have promoted to our opening panel, which our Director of Programs Alex Cudaback christened “You Say You Want a Revolution?” Here we ask where we’ll see the most impact from life sciences innovation, and how information technology is driving bio-progress. What does cloud social mobile big data and all that stuff mean for advances in genomics, food science, cancer treatment, etc.? Also on the panel are Drew Endy, a synthetic biology pioneer who teaches bioengineering at Stanford; David Glazer, who leads the Google Genomics team and helps life sciences companies harness Google’s cloud services; and Chris Waller, who oversees pharma giant Merck’s work on IT-based platforms for scientific modeling. That mix—investor, scientist, techie, and pharma expert—is indicative of the formula we’ve tried to bring to this all-day event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View Wednesday, March 25.

Alex and I had a prep call with Jurvetson last week. For 20 years he has been one of tech’s most thoughtful investors, and unlike many, he invests across a variety of fields. He says not only is IT prodding progress in life sciences, but a conceptual reshaping is underway in turn in computer science. Much of modern computing is, he says, “bio-inspired.” He gives the example of neural networks, which aim to get computers to function and learn like an actual brain. It happens that one of our sessions at TE Bio is entitled “The Brain: Decoding the World’s Greatest Computer.”

Many of us have obsessed over Internet-focused innovation and even sometimes gotten the idea that “startup” is synonymous with “making an app.” Nothing could be further from the truth. At TE Bio, we will hear Modern Meadow’s CEO talk about how his company is growing leather and meat without killing any animals. A biologist from Ecovative will explain how they are creating packing materials to replace Styrofoam out of specially-engineered mushrooms.

We’ll have a session on what we call the “Internet of (Bio) Things;” another on how manufacturing and fabrication are being changed by biological innovation; one on “smart sustenance” to feed a growing planet; a session on communicating science in a time of growing fear about genomics and other biological innovations; and one on “Who Owns Your Genetic Data?” (See Meredith Salisbury’s recent related article.) Executives from Autodesk, GE, IBM, Kleiner Perkins, McKinsey, Mount Sinai, The Salk Institute, and the FBI will weigh in on various themes.

As the day continues, I’ll interview the amazing Juan Enriquez, a serial author and entrepreneur whose new book is called “Evolving Ourselves.” It explains how fully we have moved into a period of deliberate manipulation of our genetic and environmental surroundings. The only problem is that we don’t yet realize or acknowledge how completely we are now in control. He sees the growing prevalence of allergies, for instance, as one indicator of the unexpected side effects of this unwitting self-evolution.

There’s plenty more, but the closer will be an encounter between Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, and Susan Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Benioff memorably closed our Techonomy 2014 conference at Half Moon Bay last November with an idiosyncratic and high energy interview (believe me, it’s worth watching). Benioff was a big supporter of Desmond-Hellmann’s groundbreaking work at her last job, building up the University of California at San Francisco and its medical school and hospital system. Benioff and his wife Lynne donated over $200 million to UCSF, and he is deeply interested in the future of medical and bio-science. Desmond-Hellmann is now driving the Gates Foundation’s work as life sciences poses more opportunities than ever to alter human life at scale.

An article of faith for us at Techonomy is that multidisciplinary thinking is the key to understanding almost anything. The truisms of any individual field are being trumped by deeper collaborative cross-pollination from multiple fields. For all the amazing progress based on the Net and information technology, even more appears possible as we learn to speak the language of life. At this conference we bring together people who work in both those astonishing fields, with the aim to better help us all polish our crystal ball. The future gets weirder and more amazing by the day.

If you are interested in joining us at Techonomy Bio, please register here.

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  • Will Greene

    I’ll be tuning in from Vietnam. Really enjoyed last year’s content!