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The pervasive impact of Biotech – I

Nice infographic showing the many impacts of biotechnology. Image credit: WEF

The World Economic Forum has addressed several times in the last few years the area of biotech and has recently published an infographic highlighting the variety of impacts in several areas.

Indeed the convergence of processing power, big data, artificial intelligence makes possible to open new doors into the “carbon” space. the one of biology as opposed to the one of “silicon” that has dominated the evolution in the last 70 years. Interestingly, this uptake of biology, in such broad areas, is tied to the amazing progress of silicon.

What has taken ten years (the sequencing of the first human genome) is now taking a few days (a few hours actually if you are content with specific parts of the genome) and the cost plummeted from 500-1,000 million $ (a lot took place in the sequencing, many other genomes were sequenced along with the human one so it is difficult to put a cost tag on the human genome) to less than 1,000$ (the latest figure as December 2020 is close to 600$ but here again it is difficult to pinpoint an exact cost…) and the Chinese BGI company is claiming they have a solution to bring the cost down to 100$.

Actually the genome sequencing, although important, is just one small tile in the complex patchwork of biotech.  CRISPR/Cas9 (and more) are providing biotechnology with tools to operate on the genome, to split and combine, to create “machines” to produce proteins. The current mRNA based vaccine, developed in a record time (yes, it might seem like a long time but never before a vaccine took such a time to go from “need” to “delivery”), is a convincing example of what biotech can do.

As shown in the graphic, the World Economic Forum has clustered the variety of biotech usage areas into seven clusters:

  • Gene and Genome Engineering
  • Medical Biotech
  • Environmental Biotech
  • Agricultural Biotech
  • Industrial Biotech
  • Big Data and Machine Learning
  • Synthetic Biology

The Gene and Genome Engineering is clustering the obvious aspects of Precision Medicine and Healthcare Delivery with Innovation (the number of companies and start ups engaged in this area  keep growing). Innovation is indeed very strong and that is what has led to the dramatic increase in performance (and cost decrease).

Medical Biotech is an obvious cluster comprising contribution of biotech to global health, vaccination, ageing, 3D printing (this might seem not as obvious but there is tremendous progress in printing cells and bio-structures into organs). Both this cluster and the previous one are connected (are rising) Values/Ethical issues that need to be addressed. Interesting is the contribution that medical biotech is expected to give to ageing (prolonging life, and extending healthy life conditions into elderly age). A number of researchers feel that reaching an average 115 years old age can become feasible in the second part of this century and for sure there is a lot of money to sustain research in longevity (last year, 2020, the anti-ageing industry has generated over 58B$ worldwide and it is expected to exceed 88B$ by 2026).


About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.