Unlocking nature's code

As global warming intensifies, cities need to adapt to the more frequent occurrence of deadly heatwaves and invest in new technologies and innovation.

Biotech innovation draws inspiration from living systems and organisms to develop new products to support human health and environmental sustainability. From gene therapy to alternative proteins, an enriched understanding of biology and an enhanced ability to influence it are key to solving the challenges of the 21st century. An analysis of academic papers and patents, conducted by Economist Impact, reveals a steady rise in innovation in biotechnology since the 1970s, with a marked acceleration around the turn of the millennium.

Although things appear to have slowed somewhat in recent years, computing advances are lowering barriers to future innovation, with further acceleration expected as a result.

The double helix

The late 1960s were a heyday for the field following the discovery of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson in the mid-1950s, which set off a surge in innovation related to the core code of biology. Key advances include the emergence of polymerase chain reaction (PCR), developed by Kary Mullis in 1985, which allows a section of DNA to be continually replicated. Using heat and enzymes, PCR allows unlimited copies of genes and gene fragments to be produced, which has proved useful in pursuits such as the identification of bacteria and viruses. The 1980s brought the first use of language related to gene therapy, a hypothetical idea at the time, which suggested the possibility of repairing faulty genes. Genes contain the DNA that controls the body’s form and function. This field took decades to reach scientific maturity — the first generation of gene therapies are only now emerging on to the market. The 1990s saw an increase in the pace of agricultural biotech as pest-resistant crops gained regulatory approvals and adoption. In reality, humans have been genetically modifying organisms for more than 30,000 years, from dogs bred for docility to the selective breeding of crops to increase yield, which explains the emergence of unnaturally large kernels of corn, giant heads of broccoli, and apples that are sweet and juicy. The 1990s saw the industrialisation of agricultural biotech, including controversial advances in genetic modification and, in the mid-1990s, the first full cloning of an adult animal in the form of Dolly the sheep.

Post-millennial surge

The bigger innovation surge for the sector, our model finds, came at the dawn of the new millennium, when the rapid advances in gene sequencing unleashed by the Human Genome Project (HGP), completed in 2003, laid the foundations for a biotech renaissance. The HGP mapped and sequenced human DNA for the first time, revolutionising microbiology, virology, plant biology and disease research, and establishing software and collaboration platforms that slashed the cost and complexity of gene sequencing. The cost of generating the “first draft” of the human genome was around USD300 million.1 

Today, via platforms such as 23andMe, anyone can take a DNA test for under USD200. A deepening understanding of human genetics has implications across the spectrum of disease. Gene therapy promises to fix genetic errors that cause serious and debilitating diseases such as adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) and spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) which tend to result from a small number of genetic errors amenable to fixing. CRISPR-Cas9, a methodology for editing human genes, has applicability to cystic fibrosis, haemophilia and sickle cell disease as well as more complex conditions such as cancer. Our model found that CRISPR was the second-most patented innovation concept over the period 2000 to the present day. Our model has also found a significant tilt in the geography of innovation, with northern Europe and the US the dominant engines of patent innovation from the 1960s to the mid-1990s, but with east Asia — notably China and Japan — significantly stepping up their intensity since the start of the 2000s.

A biotech boom

Looking ahead, there is optimism that we may be at the cusp of a new chapter in biotech innovation, owing to the intersection of high-performance computing and artificial intelligence (AI). DeepMind, a British AI firm owned by Google’s Alphabet parent company, recently reported that its platform AlphaFold can predict the structure of proteins. The process through which proteins turn from strings of chemical compounds into three-dimensional structures has puzzled scientists for decades; DeepMind’s model is able to identify the shape of a protein within days — rather than years, as was previously required. Nearly all diseases can benefit from greater understanding about the functions of these building blocks of life. Arnaud de la Tour, cofounder and vice president of Hello Tomorrow, a deep-tech network for investors, start-ups and corporations, believes that AlphaFold marks an important moment in the “the convergence of biology with robotics and artificial intelligence.”“Even if you don’t know how to code, you have the building blocks to make an app. It will be easy for anyone to engineer a new strain of yeast or bacteria. This is also a little scary, so there needs to be regulation,” he says.A second significant shift of today, De la Tour argues, is the democratisation of biotech innovation, as advances in computing, software and automation are bringing down barriers to entry. Paris-based DNA Script, for instance, has invented the first enzymatic DNA printer, which will allow scientists to develop molecules or DNA strands on demand. As biotech moves further from healthcare, into fields such as alternative proteins and garments, it will also draw in more start-ups and non-traditional players that are rarely able to afford the capital and time to put ideas through clinical trials needed in human medicine, he says. De la Tour draws parallels between enabling infrastructure innovations like DNA Script and the software world. “Even if you don’t know how to code, you have the building blocks to make an app.” In a few years, he predicts, biotech will move in the same direction. “It will be easy for anyone to engineer a new strain of yeast or bacteria. This is also a little scary, so there needs to be regulation.”

Insights for investors

  • Global biotechnology market forecast to more than triple in the decade to 2030 to reach USD3.4 trillion, according to Vision Research.
  • Demand for biotech-inspired treatments should remain high as fewer than 5 per cent of rate diseases can currently be treated.
  • Gene editing allows for more efficient research, while automation and AI help to make sense of the data.
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