As I write this article, I’m reflecting on the long expanses of otherworldly playa I’ve just left, watching sandstorms pass in front of me while in altered mental states and contemplating the future of our beloved biotech industry.
I have, until recently been living a double life with one foot in the corporate biotech world and another deeply in the world of biohacking/radical science (working on DIY biolabs and equipment, longevity research, and ALS therapeutic development). I believe in the principles of citizen science and shared (or at least leaky) IP as a means of accelerating scientific progress, but I felt I needed to play my part in the “real” biotech industry. That changed three months ago when I realized that to create the innovation we want in biotech, we may have to burn the bridges that got us here and re-create it ourselves, with or without the dinosaur the current biotech industry has become.
Since 1978—arguably the birth of the biotech industry when Genentech created the first GMO producing insulin—Biotech has become profitable and also heavily regulated. Biotech venture capitalists, the original sources of risk capital, have become risk-fearing middlemen/women who have been cowed into seeking safe returns for their masters (limited partners) and obsessed with spinning the right story to their customers (big pharma/biotech companies). Much of the shift away from risk has been rightfully laid on the FDA’s door for an increase in regulatory burden and uncertainty that has spread as best practice globally and mired the pace of innovation. Regardless, large corporations and academia can no longer be entrusted to move radical science forward—their world has become a world of committees, budget allocation negotiations, and quarterly/yearly cycles, lacking in vision and with fear of failure. So where does it leave us? The refugees of the Biotech Valley of Death?
The power they’ve taken from the people will return to the people, whether these vested interests want it or not. Biotech and medicine have advanced at a glacial pace, but a massive disruption is coming that will destroy the antiquated business models in the biotech, monopolistic healthcare, and pharmaceutical industries. As technology’s pace continues to quicken, the biotech industry is beginning to benefit from a digitization of biology, the maker movement, quantified self, grinders/ transhumanists, crowdsourcing, and a resurgence in local production technologies like 3D printers. A small group of hobbyists (several thousand globally) has emerged over the last couple of years and has begun building biotech equipment for 1/10th to 1/1000th the cost, creating novel open source diagnostic/medical devices, and therapeutically experimenting on themselves, as well bootstrapping and forging new paths in bioscience, like creating commercially available, genetically modified, glowing plants.
The business models for these emerging biotech industries are still evolving, but a true hunger is emerging from consumers and patients for new products offered through crowdsourcing sites, such as microbiome analysis; cheap and effective hormone analysis; novel industrial enzymes; algae-powered lights; true disease modifying therapeutics for established diseases and therapeutic life extension; cheap DIY biolab equipment; and technologies that amplify human senses, like the electromagnetic implants pioneered by grinders (i.e., those willing to biohack their own bodies). PWC has estimated that the biotech industry will be worth about $1.2 trillion globally by 2020, but this is based on a very conservative view of the industry, and with radical disruption and the creation of new products like synthetic meats, regenerative medicine, unconventional materials, and industrial enzymes, as well as the potential for homegrown biofermentation of many other products, the mar- ket for the “new” biotech industry will be vast and shifting.
In healthcare, I look forward to seeing the oligopolies that have stifled innovation and kept patients’ healthcare prices high and access lower to come crashing down as our fellow biohackers create innovative ways to allow people to ferment their own products; even getting FDA approval for a novel drug will no longer be a practical issue if you personally have control over the means of production. As biohackers, we aren’t interested in preserving the status quo but in overthrowing it for the betterment of humanity. The homebrew computer club was the past—the future belongs to those who homebrew biotech!
Excerpted from BioCoder.