Techonomy’s offices on Manhattan’s West 22d Street have been buzzing ever since our half-day Techonomy Bio conference on June 17. We got an overwhelmingly positive reception for a meeting that brought leading researchers and experts in the life sciences together with IT and Internet thinkers and business generalists.
Drew Endy, a Stanford professor who is one of the world’s leaders in synthetic biology, on stage called the event “awesome” and said he had never seen such a collection of people in one place. “People in other sectors of technology simply don’t know very much about biology and biology’s economic impact,” he continued. And like literally every expert at the event, he was supremely optimistic about the future potential of life sciences for society: “The biotech that exists right now is sort of the snowflake on the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to make.” Endy is a passionate advocate of open-source access to biological discoveries and tools to further accelerate progress by widening the community of researchers and innovators beyond just big companies.
Synthetic biology was a centerpiece of the conference, which aimed particularly to examine how progress in IT was stimulating an acceleration in biological discovery. Andrew Hessel of software-maker Autodesk crisply defined synthetic biology, calling it “genetic engineering done with digital tools.” He added: “This makes it faster, cheaper, and easier to do.” Hessel wants to use the plummeting cost of DNA sequencing—another central technology in our discussions—to enable individually-customized cancer drugs. He explained how it could happen soon.
Stewart Brand, whose ties to the IT industry go back so far he actually invented the term “personal computer,” had spoken at previous Techonomy events and his enthusiasm for biology helped convince us to plunge in despite not being experts. And on the closing panel he talked about how progress here was both like and unlike what we’ve seen with computing and the Internet. “These self-accelerating technologies, if they keep doing it decade after decade, change everything,” he said. “We saw it with communication technology, with digital code. So now we’re looking at bio code.” But he added that since digital technology is all human-engineered, it is in many ways easier to work with. “Biological code,” as he put it, on the other hand, is completely unengineered, making it intrinsically more challenging to work with: “It’s kludges and patches all the way down.” But he echoed Endy in concluding, “This should be an extremely interesting century.” One indisputably interesting thing, if a controversial one, is the effort he and his wife Ryan Phelan, also on the program, are pursuing to revive extinct species and bolster endangered ones.
Floyd Romesberg of The Scripps Institute explained his recently-published breakthrough work creating a partly-artificial E. coli that was able to replicate itself. He added two synthetic new “letters” to the bacteria’s four basic “letters” of DNA code. “All life as far back as we can see, to the last common ancestor of all life on earth, had a four-letter base pair of G, C, A, and T. That’s how it encoded information,” he explained. “There was this possibility that maybe GC and AT were the only solutions possible. What we’ve shown in my lab is that’s not at all true. It tells you that evolution, that life, is a lot more plastic maybe than we thought.” It just further showed how much innovation is possible in future. “We are just scratching the surface,” Romesberg said.
The worries on stage generally were of two types. The first was that public fears about something most people understand so little posed the threat of significantly slowing progress. Said Jim Flatt, who heads Genovia Bio, which is using algae-based systems to develop fuels, food, and agricultural chemicals: “The industry collectively has not done as good a job as it can to communicate the benefits from a societal perspective, whether it’s genetically modified crops or what have you. Why should a consumer care?” Nancy J. Kelley, a longtime biology activist and founding director of the New York Genome Center, noted that we have just seen calls for labeling and regulatory review of an engineered ingredient in laundry detergent that was specifically designed to replace palm oil. The use of palm oil is widely blamed for massive destruction of Southeast Asian rain forests, so replacing it is urgent. “The opposition is educating the public and we just can’t let that happen,” she said. Ellen Jorgenson, director of Genspace, a Brooklyn citizen science laboratory, said that kind of education is a key part of her mission: “I see this huge gap between the general public and scientists, and I am more and more drawn to bridging that gap.”
The other, equally pressing concern was also expressed eloquently by Kelley. “What is at stake here is the future competitive advantage between countries,” she said, adding, “The United States, despite its early entry into this area, currently lacks a coordinated, integrated and strategic approach to leadership on a global level.”
But Kelley also extolled the varied potential of synthetic biology outside of medicine. Aside from replacing palm oil, she sees the potential to help feed a planet whose food supply is not growing proportionately to its population. “We need higher-yield crops, that can be grown in areas where there’s not a lot of water and are pest-resistant,” she explained. She also noted that a key tool for remediating the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a genetically-engineered microorganism that turned soy products into biodisperants.
While some are concerned that investors in leading-edge tech remain overly attracted to the next hot smartphone app and not enough to society-altering bio-projects, investors onstage at Techonomy Bio were optimistic and said they were still writing checks. “Some of the best ideas are coming from non-traditional entrepreneurs,” said Beth Seidenberg of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. And Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, another major venture capital firm, said, “We’re sitting on a can of miracles, and no one seems to know about it.” Both were mobbed when they got offstage by some of the many entrepreneurs in the audience.
There were plenty more amazing speakers at Techonomy Bio and I urge you to browse through our site to watch their videos or read the transcripts and articles. Not being experts may have been what enabled us to take a new angle on the topic. We created an event to help us learn something for ourselves, and it turned out to be useful for many. We’re already planning a longer, more ambitious Techonomy Bio, again in Mountain View, on March 25, 2015.