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Human Health, Sustainability, Innovation

Permission to Leap: Welcoming Biotech’s Moment

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Biotechnology is now at the leading edge of technological progress, fusing rapidly advancing molecular science with a more deterministic path to products and impact.

Nearly forty years after the first biotechnology companies began applying primitive genetic engineering techniques to bacteria and producing human proteins as therapeutics, the power of modern biotechnology is now on full display, deployed to defeat a global pandemic and change the future of medicine. Once defined by endless experimentation and expensive, lengthy and low probability-of-success drug development processes, biotechnology is now at the leading edge of technological progress, fusing rapidly advancing molecular science with a more deterministic path to products and impact.

Even the meaning of biotechnology, like the field itself, has expanded dramatically. In the beginning, “bio” meant DNA, enzymes used to construct plasmids, and diseases caused by deficiencies in human protein levels such as insulin and human growth hormone. “Technology” involved fermentation, purification, bioassays and little more. Today “bio” is about genomes and proteomes, regulatory processes, networks, and pathways. It explores cell states, structures, and communication; it allows disease characterization, reveals new targets, and so much more. “Technology” now encompasses synthesis, editing, modeling, design, engineering, systems integration, programming, automation, miniaturization, big data and computing.

We've come a long way. Beyond small molecule drugs and protein antibodies, we now use viruses, living cells, bacteria and many other engineered biological systems to treat or cure human diseases. We have learned about the human genome and its variations, and about DNA sequences from hundreds of bacterial species that occupy our gut affecting health and disease. We have learned to read, edit, write and regulate genomes in ways unimagined just five years ago.

"While most biotech progress previously came from small, sequential steps, today, leaps to whole new fields and approaches are driven by the confidence borne of new knowledge, experience, capital, and capabilities."

We are also entering a new era of programmable medicines: translatable nucleic acid codes that can utilize innate cellular processes to achieve their therapeutic aims. As medicines, code molecules will be more predictable, tunable and designable due to their modular nature. Code-based medicines, like those based on messenger RNA, offer the possibility of fusing digital technologies with biotechnology to rapidly accelerate and increase the impact of new medicines, tackling everything from COVID to cancer.

These developments have given all of us in the field – scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors and investors – permission to leap. While most biotech progress previously came from small, sequential steps, today, leaps to whole new fields and approaches are driven by the confidence borne of new knowledge, experience, capital, and capabilities. Global need has also demanded we summon the courage to leap. Whether the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer, Alzheimer’s or other devastating diseases afflicting the planet, the urgent need to find cures or prevention requires big breakthroughs, like mRNA vaccines.

What’s the next big leap for biotech? Will we move upstream from diagnosing and treating symptomatic disease, the vast majority of what medicine is today, to detecting and intervening in pre-disease conditions, delaying or preventing illness in the first place? It’s certainly possible. As we learn more about the molecular basis of disease, we should be able to trace back their earliest etiology and develop novel solutions that can secure and protect our health. Our experience with the pandemic, leveraging our immune system as the most potent biotherapeutic arsenal we have, demonstrates what’s possible when we leap.

Innovation fuels progress in biotechnology. Collectively, innovation explores ways to expand the boundaries of knowledge, technology and products to create value. Big breakthroughs have long been hobbled by funding mechanisms and projects requiring high likelihood of success at the outset, whether in academia, large companies or VC-funded startups. The result? Incremental advances made adjacent to what already exists. More than ever before, major leaps are both possible and called for. More than ever before we need to overcome the conservatism that prevents pioneering of first-in-kind platforms and products. This is biotech’s moment to maximize its societal impact by continuing to make leap after leap: dramatically improving human health, global nutrition, and the sustainability of our planet demands that we do so.

Story By

Noubar Afeyan

Noubar Afeyan has dedicated his career to improving the human condition by systematically creating science-based innovations that serve as the foundation for startup companies. At Flagship Pioneering, which he founded in 2000, Noubar has created an…

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