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.
John Cumbers: How do you think cities and our everyday lives will change as biology becomes an integral part of our everyday lives?
Rodrigo Martinez: I’m always asking myself, how do we create the mindsets that allow us to imagine the products and services that people will be using everyday as a result of the different types biotechs?
If I told you you’re going to create fabrics from a biological source, you’d say OK. You can see that. Maybe Gap buys Ginkgo Bioworks and turns it into a materials manufacturer. Your house might be equipped with a device that prints your clothes while you’re taking a shower. You put it on. It molds to your body and changes color. It keeps you fresh and clean all day long. And at night, you recycle it.
We could sit down with a couple of glasses of wine and come up with 50 ideas.
Do either of you have a 3-D printer at home?
John Cumbers: No.
Karl Schmieder: No. We talked about it a few years ago.
Rodrigo Martinez: Three to five years ago we all thought we’d have one. We don’t because the question is what do I do with it?
We will probably make custom clothing or clothing will be produced on demand using biomaterials. We’re going to spin, grow, print things and will need a new language to describe what we do with the new biomaterials.
You might subscribe to designs and patterns from The Gap or Banana Republic and they’ll get printed at home. If that happens, what will be the role of shopping malls or stores?
When I go through these thought exercises, I think how does it change your life? What are the implications for other industries? What opportunities and threats are created.
There are already companies that you take a picture with your phone, send it to them, and two days later it arrives beautifully framed, or printed on glass. I think we will see some really really interesting ideas around art for your house using biology. Whether it’s a living bacterium that morphs and changes over time. Flavors, fragrances, foods will change but I’m not even talking about genetics and the microbiome.
We are already having disagreements on what we should be able to change in ourselves. That is going to change enormously in the next ten years. When we better understand our own microbiome, we’ll start creating products that interact with the trillions of bacteria that live in or on us. You’ll start to make connections across industries.
The Gap patterns that I download and print every day could include information on my microbiome. A connected device in my kitchen could monitor the food I eat and suggest I eat pickles that I also make at home to keep my immune system strong.
There are signals that all of this is happening. You don’t need to understand the science behind it. You don’t need to even know there is science. You just know apples or pickles are in my fridge because you apparently need these foods to stay healthy.
These are just a few examples of where the bioeconomy is taking us.
John Cumbers: Do you think we need to have a Windows 95-type program that makes biology easier to engineer? Or a Netscape moment so that companies can visualize what is possible with engineered biology?
Rodrigo Martinez: We’re past the BASIC stage. We don’t need to teach people how to program in BASIC before they can create with mycelium, learn to brew, create bio-fabrics. People shouldn’t need to learn how to use UNIX before they can use a digital biology program.
I used to think you needed a set of tools to get people excited about biotech, but I’m getting away from that idea. It’s a little bit like telling the world they need to learn computer aided design to start using computers.
To get people excited about biology, you need to start putting resources – people, money and minds – to change a company. Companies need to forget the past, imagine the future, and define the steps to get there.
That doesn’t necessarily mean using synthetic biology. Learn from nature and leverage four billion years of research and development. That might be biotechnology for some companies, for others it might mean cellular pathways, or genetics, and for others it might mean mycelium. The application of just synthetic biology is too narrow.
Companies will get excited when we begin creating ten different business models, ten ways to improve the environment while increasing profits, ten ways to engage their customers, their employees, ten ways to communicate their applications of biology to their customers. None of those need to be mutually exclusive.
The power of triggering a conversation about biology is that there are thousands of companies that need exposure to the basic idea. They need to imagine how it will transform the way they do things.
I’m always trying to think two steps ahead. A company like Kodak could never have seen Instagram coming. They weren’t set up for it.
Karl Schmieder: It requires a mindset shift.
Rodrigo Martinez: Exactly. It’s not about learning there’s an incredible and powerful new computer code based on four letters that allows you to do things better. If you’re going to start with Window 95 and imagine moving to the Cloud, it’s going to take 15 years. No one has 15 years.
Companies need to create an internal group of pirates who are tasked with thinking about what biology will enable in 30 years.
How that will transform their business and how they get there starting today. Without that group, they’ll be lost. It’ll be like Instagram, Amazon Shared Services and Uber all over again, only the impact will be much greater.
# # #