While artificial intelligence might bask in the glow of Silicon Valley’s admiration, it seems that it might be AI’s eclipsed cousin, biotech, that holds the keys to a bright new future. Technological advances in genetic sequencing and engineering have made data analysis quicker and more cost-effective. With better accessibility, the applications are almost limitless – everything from self-repairing fibers to bio-based auto fuels.
COVID-19 provides an excellent example of how these technologies have changed how healthcare responds to a pandemic. “For SARS-CoV-2, it took a matter of weeks between identifying the new disease and sequencing it, compared to months for the original SARS virus,” stated Michael Chui, partner with the McKinsey Global Institute.
Technology like this is rewriting the rules of research – moving it from a trial-and-error-based process to one powered by machine learning algorithms that draw insights from a vast sea of genetic data. Coupled with the introduction of robotic automation and sensors to lab settings, it's transforming biology from a hand-crafted pursuit to a commercial enterprise.
McKinsey found that over $20 billion was invested in biotechnology in 2018 – sparking the beginning of what some call the Bio Revolution. It's driven by blending digital and biological techniques and will determine the face of genomics, molecular biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience in the coming years. These new developments mean quicker and cheaper production, better outcomes, and high-value end products and services for the customer. With these new opportunities come new players keen to leverage the technology and become the go-to business in a burgeoning industry.
For instance, improvements to reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction machines have made diagnosing COVID-19 cases a 15-minute process. AI-driven research and development tools are accelerating the pace of finding a vaccine, while genetically engineered animals are being used to create potential treatments. Biotech firms have been busy fulfilling their role in the pandemic play, and several of these recent breakthroughs have come directly from their work.
Farther afield from healthcare is Pennsylvania-based startup Tandem Repeat. The firm is creating the world's first programmable textiles, and one such product is a self-repairing, biodegradable, and recyclable fabric using proteins encoded by squid genes. Zymergen, another biotech firm, is developing a biomaterial that can be used in flexible electronic circuits for optical displays.
In agriculture, specialists in genetic services for livestock breeding and seed cultivation have created proprietary solutions with genetic traits and software capable of speeding up animal husbandry and seed selection by calculating hundreds of genetic characteristics. Other firms are utilizing large microbiome data sets to create new microbial products that could enhance nutrition and health for plants and animals.
While there is so much potential in biotechnology, it's not just the pace of scientific discovery that will determine its progress. Biology is heavily regulated in ways other sectors are not, and development will be decided by other factors, such as politics. Societal attitudes towards these advancements will influence how innovation unfolds within the field. Gaining public trust will be an essential consideration for any company planning to operate as biotech.