The Biotechnology Revolution
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is characterized by concurrent advances and an interplay of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. Not just a digital revolution but a bio revolution. Having focused on the key digital technologies last year, now, with the attention of leaders of organisations across the world focused on a virus, it seems appropriate timing to consider the equally transformative potential of biotechnologies.
Biotechnology, similarly to Artificial Intelligence (AI), is an umbrella term covering a wide range of technologies with various taxonomies. A new McKinsey Global Institute report grouped these into four areas:
- mapping, measuring and engineering of intra-cellular molecules – bio-molecular innovations
- mapping, measuring and engineering of cells, tissues, and organs – bio-systemic innovations
- connecting living nervous systems to machines – bio-machine interfaces
- using cells or intra-cellular molecules e.g. DNA for computation – bio-computing
Whilst the latter two are still nascent fields of scientific enquiry, early applications leveraging bio-molecular and bio-systemic innovation already exist in market: gene therapies for mono-genic diseases such as sickle cell anaemia; lab-grown and plant based meats; leathers produced by mushrooms, aviation fuel derived from mustard seeds; direct to consumer genetic testing to inform health and wellness regimens. But beyond these, hundreds of applications have been developed to proof of concept and could plausibly achieve the tipping point for commercialisation at scale within the next couple of decades.
The 'bio revolution' could transform entire value chains, and companies in virtually every sector may need to adapt their strategies.
The same report estimates that 45% of the global disease burden could be addressed by applications that are scientifically conceivable, but that two thirds of the estimated 4 trillion USD direct economic impact of biotechnological innovation will be captured by applications beyond human health and performance (‘red’ / medical biotech).
The arena of agriculture, aquaculture and food (‘green’ / agricultural biotech) offer equal potential for economic impact. Whilst the arenas of material and energy production (‘white’ / industrial biotech) could be transformed beyond all recognition. Over the longer term, 60% of physical inputs to the global economy could, in principle, be produced biologically, reducing carbon emissions, whilst applications for government and defence are no doubt advancing in stealth mode.
In the arena of direct to consumer products and services, opportunities for more precise, personalised wellness, nutrition, fitness, beauty and anti-ageing offerings enabled by the capture and analysis of biological data look set to proliferate, with upstream and downstream impacts on industries from insurance and finance to entertainment.
Incumbents across industries should brace for competition from a new generation of bio-native start-ups.
The transformation that the bio-revolution will drive is in many ways analogous to the digital transformation that has been in progress for the last couple of decades. It took a pandemic, but today almost every business has recognised that it needs to be a digital business. In the not too distant future, every business may need to be a bio-business. Cross-disciplinary by nature, businesses will likely need to co-operate within new ecosystems to access the new resources and capabilities required as biotechnologies impact supply chains across industries. And, as with the digital revolution, some should consider how to use platform-based business models to seize cross-sector opportunities and drive innovation by leveraging the new era of biological big data.
As is currently being highlighted, when it comes to biology, it generally takes many years of research and very considerable investment to develop an idea through to proof of concept, the point at which a product or service is scientifically feasible. The failure rate for new biotechnology development is high, and regulatory compliance requirements higher still.
The potential impact of these transformative biotechnologies will be very largely influenced by consumer, societal and regulatory acceptance.
Capturing and utilising personalised, ‘multi-omics’ data – the data generated by genomic, metabolic, micro-biomic and other intra-cellular processes - carries inherently greater risk and reward, and poses greater ethical questions, than that that of personal transactional data, already creating significant tensions between privacy and personalised product / service delivery.
As with the digital revolution, the rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies, together with capabilities such as for increasingly rapid and cost effective genomic sequencing, are enabling us to process this wealth of data. From there we can begin to address the challenge of discerning actionable insights, and delivering on the promise of truly effective prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancers; personalised medicine, nutrition and lifestyle service; optimising agricultural productivity and quality; and the distributed biological production and processing of new self-repairing materials.
Bio-technologies may well in time determine what we eat, put on our skin, whom we date, what we wear, how we build our physical infrastructure and power our every activity.