By John Casey
President Obama’s strategy of hitting singles and doubles instead of home runs may be controversial when it comes to foreign policy, but is without a doubt an increasingly popular approach for biotech entrepreneurs.
As biotechnology mushroomed throughout the aughts, predictable disappointments came to pass. Lab-reared human limbs have remained beyond reach, and, no, we can’t program a tree to grow your house. Similarly, the green biofuel revolution has languished, retrenching with meager progress despite congressional mandates of Himalayan proportion. Instead, a fresh wave of metabolic engineers and microbiologists are adapting the armaments of synthetic biology to take on more manageable industrial problems. Entrepreneurs and investors have come to understand that industries with immense scale and slender margins – e.g., fuels – can be inappropriate first targets of underdeveloped biological systems. Rather than committing fickle biological entities to massive, capital-intensive projects, a new generation of guerrilla scientists are targeting the small and value-rich: fragrances, moisturizers, dietary products, plastics.
Have we abandoned the health of the planet for individual vanity? Hardly. The high-value molecules exemplified by cosmetics are intermediates to bigger goals; not alternate destinations, but stepping stones. By first getting “on-base,” successful enterprises are putting themselves in better position to score bigger goals
The marketable outcomes of biotechnology can be seen as a continuum from low-volume, high-value (cosmetics or “orphan” drugs) to high-volume, low-value products (grains, fuels). While the latter end of the continuum has the potential for the greatest worldwide impact, it also requires a magnitude of production and reliability uniquely challenging for biological processes. Without proof that a new biotechnology will work as well when measured in acres or thousands of gallons as it does at the bench, funding is hard to come by. Of course, without such funding, sufficient evidence is impossible.
While less likely to change the world, narrower markets for high-margin products like algal anti-aging cream can nurture and sustain emerging technologies. By generating more revenue for less product and capital expenditure, these niches allow biotechnologists to simultaneously build a stable business while iterating on the fundamental technology for longer-term projects. Thusly focused startups are proliferating around Boston and Cambridge: Gingko Bioworks and Manus Biosynthesis, each founded by recent MIT BE alumni, are developing independent approaches for biocatalysis of highly valuable chemicals and are already earning revenue. Importantly, they’re finding that lower funding requirements grants them a great deal of independence. When asking for seven figures instead of nine, one finds a wider variety of partners willing to talk.
So what does this have to do with those of us still working on bench-scale technologies in academic labs? Too often, our projects are targeted at holy grail, home run outcomes. Sure, there is usually a series of aims that lead (conveniently) linearly to our holy grail, but ultimately progress is measured by how close a student or investigator gets to this lofty goal. Resulting do-or-die situations only result in greater pressure on researchers to find any positive, potentially illusory, inclinations in their experiments. Reimagining engineering projects as a series of independently useful and sustainable steps could facilitate the field’s ability to serve society while improving the education of those young scientists conducting the research. Incrementality and flexibility could both contribute to a higher hit percentage. Projects could be funded in smaller chunks but still yield concrete outcomes to funding stakeholders, widening the scope of grant sources. Technologies that fail to cure cancer or replace fossil fuels could still spin out tangible value for investigators and potential consumers. For students, the more intermediate successes built into a project, the less risk and pressure involved in its undertaking. More broadly, when we frame our projects to taxpayers in terms of multifaceted, attainable goals, we decrease the chances of disappointment and eventual disillusionment with the scientific enterprise.
Image credit: Images.com/Corbis/Todd Davidson