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.
A core part of biotechnology is measurement – the ability to measure the changes you’ve made to a genome, to a microorganisms. Agilent is a company founded on the technology and ability to measure the world around us. Any book on SynBio should include a discussion on measurement, so we interviewed Agilent’s Chief Technology Officer, Darlene Solomon. Darlene leads Agilent with a focus on life sciences and diagnostics.
JOHN CUMBERS: How do people interact with biotechnology on a daily basis?
DARLENE SOLOMON: Most people don’t realize they touch and benefit from bio-based or biologically-manufactured products every day. Textiles and plastic containers, the contact lens solution, and medicines are often either partially or entirely biologically-based or manufactured using biological production methods. Since it’s not on the label – and doesn’t have to be – it look like the same product they’ve always purchased.
KARL SCHMIEDER: The modern biotechnology industry is about 40 years old, how do you think it’s progressed?
DARLENE SOLOMON: In many ways, I think the expectation has been higher than the outcomes. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to discount the successes we’ve seen with therapeutics and the early days of precision medicine. In some areas, like cancer, biotech has made it easier to diagnose and understand diseases with unprecedented resolution.
On the other hand, some people expected the human genome project to solve human health problems.
We’re just now capturing the benefits of the Human Genome Project. That work laid the foundation for technologies like cellular reprogramming, stem-cell technologies, regenerative medicine and cellular manufacturing. We’re positioned for disruptive change and that’s going to accelerate.
JOHN CUMBERS: You say biology is more complex than other disciplines – how does it compare to engineering disciplines?
DARLENE SOLOMON: Engineering disciplines and the physical sciences, while very sophisticated, are well understood, deeply modeled and ultimately predictable. This is not the case for biology today in the sense biology is more complex than other disciplines.
We’ve been studying physics for centuries. Even engineering has a 4,000 year-old history. With biology we still have decades to go.
As an example, I like to contrast the difference between transistors and cells. Transistors are well-behaved when they’re part of a circuit board. What they do is predictable. It can be measured and it can be engineered.
Biology on the other hand is always growing and evolving. If you have two discrete cells with the same DNA, they will act differently depending on their environment. You don’t yet have wiring diagrams with cells. You don’t have oscillators or signal analyzers to measure what is happening on the cellular level.
KARL SCHMIEDER: Biotechnology has been very successful and contributes a significant amount to the global GDP. How do you account for that?
DARLENE SOLOMON: Biological manufacturing can be more profitable compared to traditional manufacturing. Many large chemical companies understand the potential of biology, though their efforts might still be relatively limited today. In many cases they still need to overcome the perceived risk of these investments and ensure economic viability in the early stages.
The companies that have been successful with biology can leverage their learnings and start thinking about how to take their knowledge to the next adjacent opportunity.
Bio-manufacturing opens up new opportunities to create things that weren’t previously possible. You can create novel materials that provide superior performance, while at the same time being sustainable and potentially more profitable.
Europe has passed some very meaningful legislation around new sustainability targets that I think will further drive bio-based manufacturing. Many companies will need to meet those mandates by 2020 which is in just a few years.
JOHN CUMBERS: What should non-biotech companies know about biotechnology?
DARLENE SOLOMON: Biotechnology is going to have a disruptive impact on the petroleum economy. The challenges and opportunities of biology are driving the transformation and companies need to be ready.
The impact of biology will challenge our policies and regulatory systems. In some ways, non-biotech folks may see those impacts before being impacted directly.
As for the future, I believe in the near-term, we’re probably going to see a lot more progress on the health care, medicinal side of biotechnology. I mentioned cancer as a disease whose diagnosis and treatment has changed tremendously because of biotechnology. But when you look at biologically-based therapeutics, we’re still in the early phases.
I also think we’re going to see a renaissance in natural products therapeutics and the Westernization of traditional Chinese medicines. Those products and medicines will be rigorously characterized. We’ll gain a much better understanding of what makes them work.
Since both natural products and Chinese medicines consist of interesting active molecules, they are more amenable to being manufactured biologically. That could result in traditional Chinese medicines becoming more widely used.
In another 20 or 30 years, living matter will become a pervasive, standard tool. There will be many more skills and methods. As a result, more objectives will be achieved. It’s going to touch everything around us and hopefully improve the quality of life for both humanity and our planet.
The vision among many of us is that we’ll be able to take the engineering cycle of design, test, build, and apply it cells. We’ll be able to model and predict biology the same way we are able to do with more mature engineering disciplines. We’ll understand cellular complexity and be able to profile all the biochemistry that goes on in a single cell, in a group of cells. As we’re able to understand that, we’ll be able to probe and model the interactions between cells.
Overall, we have very exciting times ahead!