Mar 29, 2021

Investors are throwing money at mRNA and new medical technologies. What could go wrong?

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There's a rush to invest in synthetic biology, which approaches the body and natural systems as programmable platforms like computers.

We’ve been talking about all the potential of mRNA technology — better vaccines and virus detection for all kinds of diseases. Now, let’s talk about the money because the rush is on to invest in mRNA and the whole field of synthetic biology, which approaches the body and natural systems as programmable platforms like computers. However, the history of Silicon Valley and medical tech is mixed.

You remember Theranos. Just last week, the founders of a once-hot biotech firm called uBiome were charged with fraud in a similar fashion. I spoke with John Cumbers, the founder of SynBioBeta, a network for entrepreneurs, engineers and investors interested in synthetic biology. He said billions of dollars are flowing into the field. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

John Cumbers: Now, what you’re seeing is a new generation of investors and entrepreneurs coming in, who are looking at a whole, new set of tools around reading, writing and editing of DNA and designing and building and testing of biological systems. So you’ve got to look at the potential for these technologies to do a lot of good in the world, not just in health care or “quantified self” or, in this case, mRNA vaccines. But also, for climate change, for food production, for chemicals and materials. So I think with any technology, there’s the power to do good and there’s the power to do bad. But I think with this technology, the power to do good in so many different parts of our lives is just huge.

Molly Wood: Well, it seems like there’s also the power to ask good questions or ask bad questions. And I wonder if you could suggest to investors who are getting into this field: what should they be asking so that they don’t make mistakes on the level of something like Theranos, or even uBiome?

Cumbers: The reality is that you’re basing a lot of that business decision on trust and personal connection to people that you know and you trust. So I think that the question that you have to ask is: Do you have that connection to the person that you’re investing in, in terms of do you trust them? And then, can that trust be backed up with the data that they need to show you to convince you that it’s true? So I think trust is one thing. “Trust and verify” is how I always like to look at it, if I’m thinking of investing in a company or if I’m communicating with an entrepreneur.

Wood: Synthetic biology is a big field and encompasses a lot of types of bioengineering, as you mentioned. Are you worried that there will be such a gold rush around mRNA and vaccine development, which is great, but there will be so much attention on that, that there will be other parts of this industry that will be neglected?

Cumbers: The biopharma segment is so big and influential. It is the elephant in the room of the bioeconomy. It dwarfs all the other sectors. So yes, I’m always worried that the biopharma segment is going to suck up all the air and all of the money. So that means that it does overshadow a lot of the other technology areas like climate change or food production or materials and chemicals.

Wood: As you look, though, at this moment in history, if there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it’s potentially that we’ve kick-started a pretty incredible time around vaccine development, around synthetic biology. How big a deal is this right now?

Cumbers: I think this mRNA boom is very transformative. The main reason is because suddenly this drug that you’re putting into the body, or this vaccine that you’re putting into the body, is based on a programming language. That programming language is four letters [representing the chemical bases of DNA]: A, C, T and G — or in the case of RNA, A, C, U and G. And by having a programmable medicine that you can put in, it means that you can rapidly iterate if something changes. For example, these new coronavirus variants, Moderna is able to rapidly iterate the sequence of the mRNA vaccine that it’s produced, and quickly get out a new version and put it through clinical trials. So I think it’s a revolution in the programmability of medicine. And that’s why everybody’s making such a big deal about this. And all of the companies that are making therapeutics are suddenly looking at this new modality, which we didn’t know worked. It wasn’t until Moderna pushed it through the clinical trial and showed that it worked against COVID-19 that this was actually proven to work. And now they’ve done that. It’s sped up the development cycle, and it’s sped up the amount of money that’s pouring into the industry to now treat many other diseases.

Wood: So are we on the cusp of a revolution in treatment of diseases and viruses?

Cumbers: We are on the cusp of a revolution. We’re on the cusp of what some people are predicting is the next 100 years of biology, the century of biology. And people have been predicting this. There’s some wonderful quotes by Steve Jobs talking about the intersection of computation and biology. Bill Gates has been predicting this. A lot of the traditional tech pioneers have been looking at biology for the last 20 years and knowing that something big is coming. And I think COVID-19 was this wake-up call for everybody. And for the last 12 months, so many of the companies have been focusing on tools and technologies to be able to diagnose and now treat these diseases. But those tools and technologies, like reading, writing and editing of DNA and designing and building and testing biological systems, is going to have an impact on so many different markets.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

So, a little more on what John Cumbers mentioned about the 100 years of biology and the tech luminaries who’ve been fascinated with it for years. He actually sent us some quotes to that effect. One from Bill Gates, who wrote back in 1995, “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.” And Walter Isaacson, in his biography of Steve Jobs, quoted him as saying, “I think the biggest innovations of the twenty-first century will be the intersection of biology and technology.”

Cumbers wrote a Forbes piece back in 2019 about big tech names who are investing in synthetic biology. And although Silicon Valley types are somewhat famous for wanting to hack the body, whether it’s mysterious life-extension technology or microdosing on smart drugs like nootropics or Jack Dorsey’s extremely intermittent eating — I’m telling you, astral planes, people — a lot of these new investments aren’t just about the human body. Cumbers’ article points to things like using biotech to grow meat replacement from living cells, like Memphis Meats does, or programming microbes to create synthetic silk or engineering mushrooms into faux leather. Or, yes, figuring out how to store digital information in DNA, which sounds a little like a future “Matrix” situation or extreme life extension because, you know … Silicon Valley stuff.

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