As part of our new book “What’s Your Bio Strategy?” we’ve interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs, business leaders and academics working on synthetic biology. The following is an excerpt from one of those interviews. To find out when the book goes on sale subscribe to our newsletter here.
In 1997, Harvard professor Juan Enríquez and Rodrigo Martinez introduced the term ‘bioeconomy.’
To describe the economic impact of biotechnology, Enriquez and Martinez examined the flow of genetic data into the world’s three largest public genetic databases – the U.S. National Institutes of Health GenBank, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the DNA Database of Japan (DDBJ).
They published their findings in Science Magazine and presented at the 1997 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.
Twenty years later, the bioeconomy comprises nearly three percent of the US Gross Domestic Product. In 2012, President Barack Obama, announced intentions to encourage biological manufacturing methods with a National Bioeconomy Blueprint.
We sat down with Rodrigo to learn how the concept has evolved.
John Cumbers: How has the concept of the bioeconomy changed over time?
Rodrigo Martinez: In 1997, the modern biotechnology industry was barely twenty years old. We could see things happening in agriculture and healthcare. A few chemical companies were applying biology to their manufacturing processes. We saw signals that biotechnology was delivering economic activity in a company’s business unit or a line of products. When we looked at the total economy, that was a very small segment.
At the time, the economy was changing. The term digital economy had entered the mainstream. Everyone was talking about how digital would transform business. Then you had the dot com crash and eventually we reached a point where no one talked about digital business anymore. Compare the number of Google searches for digital economy starting in 1999 to today and the search term is irrelevant because all business is digital.
Google Trends: term “Digital Economy” 2004 to 2017
Today, there are probably still people creating economic value with Windows 95 but they’re quickly losing to artificial intelligence.
When digital touched every segment of the economy – because everything is conducted with or connected through digital – we stopped talking about the digital economy.
At what point did we go from tools you used to economic and productive activities that were purely digital? At what point did you get a digitally native catalogue? When did a physical store sell a ringtone or offer a digital app? When were you able to pay for and download a video game or a piece of music with no physical counterpart?
There an inflection point when more than half of the Fortune 500 was using digital tools for their operations and productivity.
The next inflection point is when companies exist only because digital enables what they do. Think about Apple when it started offering iTunes in 2001 or so. A few years later, you have Facebook, Twitter and Amazon. Those four are an inflection point.
Google Trends: term “Bioeconomy” 2004 to 2017
Karl Schmieder: At what point then would you say biology has impacted Fortune 500 companies?
Rodrigo Martinez: Do you mean at what point do companies use biological tools that improve their operations and productivity? At what point do most of the Fortune 500 companies have some connection to biotechnologies in the most broad sense of the word?
I don’t think we’re there yet, but there are signs.
Maybe companies in the Fortune 500 are already using genetic algorithms. Some are producing dyes using biotech. Some might be using biological tools.
On the other hand, we’re leapfrogging some of the steps that were needed to build the digital economy. Companies like Ginkgo Bioworks and Synthetic Genomics exist solely because the technology is available.
I’ve said this before, I think the term bioeconomy is quickly becoming irrelevant. It might already be obsolete.
It’s just the economy. The biological part of the economy – biotechnology, synthetic biology, the use of biology to create things without biotech – is becoming interspersed with everything.
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