From lab-grown human ears to fuel made out of algae, the ability to write “life code” will bring extraordinary changes to our economy—and our lives.
Question: What business opportunities does genomics create?
Juan Enriquez: So, there’s always a question when you invest. Are you too early, are you too late, or are you just right? And there was a lot of hype about life sciences, around the sequencing of the human genome and a lot of people concluded that’s not really there. But by the way, there was a lot of hype around the digital revolution just about the time of 2000 and the human genome, and it turns out that some of the world’s biggest, most powerful companies are the survivors post that crash.
Something similar is beginning to happen in the ability to read and write life code because not only are we reading life code, we’re beginning to copy it through cloning, and we’re beginning to write, and in the measure that we do that, boy, you can build a lot of very powerful companies in a short period of time. Our new fund just had its first exit about 20 months after being formed. And that’s a company that does nano-particles in very small test tubes which brings down the cost of experiments, around 100 or 1,000-fold basis.
But there’s other agreements and other companies that are growing very quickly. Synthetic Genomics that was founded with Venter is a company that just signed a $600 million agreement with Exxon Mobile to begin to try to make gasoline out of algae. The stapled peptide company we work with which keeps peptides, which are like Slinkys, on the side of cells in a single shape, is also turning out to be a very important technology and it at least increases a number of places where you can place a drug, work a drug by about 3-fold. And that is very valuable to pharmaceutical companies, so they’re very excited about this. And it’s a really neat period because on the one hand, you get all these discoveries coming at you and on the other hand, you have all these smart people wanting to do stuff with this new code. So, coming to the office every day is a little like Christmas.
Question: What are the greatest benefits genomics could bring humanity?
Juan Enriquez: You know, it’s very hard to think through everything that was going to happen because you had the ability to build an integrated circuit. So, people thought this was a computer IT gig, and that will flow through those nerdy departments and it won’t come into fashion photography, it won’t come into television, it won’t come into my daily communications, it won’t come into my telephone, my microphone, my light control, my microwave radio, my – I mean, just name it. Try to live without something digital – without digital code for about two hours, very hard to do if you’re awake.
I think something similar is going to happen as the ability to read and write life code begins to wind its way through the economy. Because you’re going to see impacts on assurance, you’re going to see impacts on chemicals, how we feed ourselves, how we feed animals, how we dress ourselves, how we travel, the type of IT that’s done, the amount of volume data, how hospitals operate, how long we live. It’s actually very hard to find an area of the economy that doesn’t fundamentally change in the measure that we are able to read and write life code.
Question: Will there be any technological limits to the genomics revolution?
Juan Enriquez: You know, we’re just starting to scratch this revolution. In the same way it was unimaginable for my grandparents to go to Europe for a day and come back; or in the same way as operators used to interrupt you because it was long distance calling. So, you’d be on the phone and they’d just interrupt and a three-minute phone call could cost $200.
We’re beginning to enter an era where it gets really cheap and really fast to begin to do things like make fuels, and make textiles, and make extra teeth for ourselves. And we’re beginning to think about how we regrow our bladders. And we’re beginning to think of how we regrow our ears. And it’s not going to surprise me if our kids end up running on the beach in Florida when they’re 100 years old on regrown body parts with a much higher quality of life than we can begin to imagine. And again, that’s easier to see when you’re my age and you have grandparents who got old when they were 60, and you look at today’s 80-year-olds and a lot of them are competing in 5Ks, or 10Ks. It’s a very different world.
Recorded on November 9, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen