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Biotechnology breakout

The latest edition of 'Vision', Julius Baer's client magazine, takes a closer look at what the future of business will look like. For almost two decades now, the next breakout sector has always been some permutation of the current breakout sector. Which is to say, in the mid 90s, the Internet took off and kept on taking off. First we had web 1.0 (the boom), then we had web 2.0 (mobile and social media), and next up is web 3.0 (the Internet of things). It has, to be fair, been a pretty all-encompassing revolution. But what about the next breakout that isn’t some new take on communications technology? Could biotech be the next big thing?




In the early 90s, many people thought the next breakout sector wasn’t going to be the Internet. Rather, they expected it to be biotechnology. Indeed, inasmuch as science fiction often reflects societal concerns, the film ‘Gattaca’ predicted a future where genetic discrimination was the norm and genetic perfection (or lack thereof) determined people’s education and careers.

Waiting in the wings
‘Gattaca’ wasn’t wrong. Indeed, many people still have these worries, but it was rather premature. Biotech is in the strange position of having advanced hugely over the past 20 years, but not having changed the world nearly as visibly as the Internet. There is no Facebook of genes.

Partly this is because of the products biotech delivers. Silicon Valley delivers a lot of consumer technology. Whenever the next Instagram arrives, we’ll be able to download it on to our phones and start playing with it immediately. What biotech delivers – new methods of editing genes, new drugs, and disease-resistant plants – tends to be less consumer-facing. We usually benefit from these advances without really knowing about them unless they affect us in a direct and personal way (for example, a new heart drug). But all this could be about to change.

In 2016, Mark Zuckerberg made an extraordinary announcement. With his wife Priscilla Chan, he pledged USD 3 billion with the goal of eradicating all diseases within his newborn daughter’s lifetime. “It’s easy to imagine modern tools that could unlock progress in each of the four major disease categories today,” he said. “AI software to interpret brain imaging or datasets of cancer genomes, a chip to diagnose any infectious disease, continuous bloodstream monitoring to identify diseases early, and maps of all the different cell types and states to help design drugs to combat any given disease.”

This announcement highlights one of the key trends in biotech – that we are looking at the merger of what is considered ‘normal’ tech and biotech. In a 2017 EY report on biotech, Lisa Suennen of GE Ventures noted that ‘digital health’ is rapidly becoming a non-category. Technology is a key part of healthcare as it is of any other industry. We don’t call banking ‘digital banking’, and we won’t long call this intersection of technology with health ‘digital health’.

The extraordinary advances in computing power in areas such as AI, cloud computing, and big data are already transforming biotech, healthcare, and life sciences. In the way that many communications and electronics companies have effectively become data companies, so too healthcare and pharmaceuticals companies will become as much about the information they hold as the products they make and the patients they care for. In the longer term, this blurring is likely to become even greater.

Similarly, from the other side, the tech giants (notably Google and Apple) are increasingly interested in becoming big players in the multi-trillion-dollar health market. It’s not just the intersection of health and data, though.

Numerous other biotech developments are changing the world of medicine. We already have a Swedish company, called Cellink, which makes bio-ink for 3D printers. Soon we are likely to see the printing of tissues such as skin and muscle and, after that, the 3D printing of replacement organs. We currently have artificial limbs that can be controlled (somewhat) by the brain, but we are only at the very start of this technology.

In the longer term we could be looking at augmented thinking with brain plug-ins straight out of science fiction.

Meanwhile, the understanding of disease and ageing means biotech is likely to radically lengthen our lifespans. The greatest proponent of this is Aubrey de Grey of SENS, who has suggested that the first person to live to 1000 has already been born. Dr de Grey is not without his critics, but this is by no means ridiculous. If you are 20 today, all you have to do is live long enough for technology to continue lengthening your lifespan. It is not impossible that, in some of the world’s wealthier regions, there are people alive today who will live forever.

Looking beyond healthcare
The promises that biotech holds out are not just about healthcare, either. The industry will begin to visibly affect every aspect of our lives. The Silicon Valley firm Just, Inc. has said it hopes to have lab-grown meat on the shelves in 2018, while Memphis Meats (a ‘clean meat’ start-up) says it will have products in the stores by 2021. Even if artificial meat only started to nibble away at conventional meat production, the potential ramifications are huge. Around 30 per cent of the world’s ice-free surface is used (in some way) to raise the animals we eat. Moreover, cows, which produce methane, are huge contributors to global warming.

Environmental solutions
Biotech holds the key to solving numerous problems, too. A pair of breakthroughs occurred in 2017, both of which could be the start of something enormous. Researchers at Cambridge University discovered that the wax worm, a moth caterpillar, has the ability to chomp through polyethylene at ‘uniquely high speeds’. The larvae can make holes in a plastic bag in less than an hour and, potentially degrade plastic more than 1000 times faster than was previously thought possible.

Dr Paolo Bombelli, a biochemist at Cambridge who is working on the study, says, “This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans.” Yes, caterpillars could solve our garbage problem.

As well as getting rid of the plastic waste that is one of oil’s unfortunate end products, biotech in the form of modified algae could help produce oil itself. In mid 2017,a joint venture between ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics announced a breakthrough. The team has used genetic engineering to boost the oil content of an algal strain from 20 to 40 per cent, without slowing its growth. This is serious stuff: ExxonMobil has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in algal oil research.

Obviously, these are just a few of the possibilities that biotech holds out. But only a few of the sector’s possibilities need to come good for it to really start changing the world around us.

Over the past 20 years, the Internet has revolutionised the way we communicate, how we deal with information, and how we entertain ourselves. But a biotech revolution could make this look trite and superficial. In the medium term, biotech is likely to begin changing the living world and the way we relate to it. Ultimately, it is going to change us, as part of that living world.

If biotech is the next big thing, it’s going to make all the previous big things look very small.