By @SimonCocking

Really interesting interview with Indie Bio innovator Ryan Bethencourt @RyanBethencourt  Program Director & VC Partner at IndieBio San Francisco @indbio. Also former Head of LifeSciences at Xprize @xprize and Co-Founder Lablaunch @LAbLaunch, Berkley biolabs @berkeleybiolab, Counter Culture Labs @CountrCultrLabs and Sudoroom  @sudoroom.

Briefly what does Indie Bio do?

Indie Bio in is looking to solve previously intractable problems with biology, our emphasis is the use of biology as technology, not just in the biomedical field but to transform the materials we use, the food we eat and move our global economies forward from one of scarcity to one of abundance.

What is possible now?

It’s surprising what’s already possible today, Dr. Mark Post showed us that we can rethink food, starting with meat, we no longer need to grow animals in dirty and often inhumane conditions just to enjoy a burger, the current cost of his cultured burger (made with real cow muscle) is $300k but he and many other researchers are looking to make this an affordable alternative for everyone. In addition, companies like Clara Foods (egg whites), Impossible Foods (burgers) and Muufri (milk) are finding new ways of accelerating the post-animal bioeconomy, giving people what they want but removing the animal.

We’re also seeing a rise in novel biomaterials, like Bolt Threads, who have bioengineered spider’s silk to make incredibly strong and light materials, unlike anything we’ve seen before (10x stronger than steel but lighter and flexible) for clothing and other applications. Engineered Yeast, Bacteria and Plants can provide both currently used materials (like petrochemical products, which companies like Zymochem are replacing, brewing nylon out of sugar with yeast) through to novel bandages, like those pioneered by Bioloom focused on improving wound healing through microbially derived cellulose.

We’re also looking at the future of healthcare, as the cost of DNA sequencing and synthesis continues to drop, new and deeper understandings of our how bodies work are emerging and new applications are possible that weren’t previously possible. Our aim is to help fund and accelerate these technologies with a global focus.

What you guys are doing well at?

We’ve been very pleased with the first IndieBio class, in particular, 7 out of 12 of the companies started at the program a scientific plan, a piece of paper but no science, by the end of the 4 month acceleration window all 12 companies had developed at least a prototype and two of the companies had begun selling their products (Extem began selling human stem cells for research and Arcturus Biocloud had users for their robotic biotech lab in over 160 cities globally). We now know that we can deliver on accelerated science businesses and we’re very excited about our next batch of 15 companies starting this September!

What is coming soon?

Moore’s law and the drop in costs of doing genetic engineering are accelerating the productivity increases and cost drops beyond Moore’s law alone in biological research and development. Estimates are ranging between 3x-5x cost reductions in the cost of biotech research and development in smaller biotech’s which are fully engaging with lean, robotic and IT intensive development programs. Joi Ito @Joi, who heads up MIT’s media lab, thinks biotech is the future for modern day makers and he’s pushing MIT heavily in that direction (he’s also seen the 5x cost reductions per year which have been smoking Moore’s law of 2x cost reductions every 18 months).

I think it’ll be hard for anyone to predict exactly the new innovations that will be possible, they’ll surprise us even more than the new applications that we’ve seen during tech revolution, especially as biological innovation rates are now exceeding those we’ve seen in tech. However, I’m pretty certain we’re going to see dramatic shifts and improvements on food production, removal of animals from every aspect of our economy for food and product production, more efficient methods of developing better, strong and more versitle biomaterials, dramatic improvements in healthcare diagnostic, therapeutics and analysis and a day when millions of people will be able to build their own genetically engineered bacteria, yeast and plants and maybe one day, making medical breakthroughs at home with these new low cost tools.

I’ll leave you with one thought on what’s possible, I’m using Arcturus Biocloud to show how we might open source all manner of therapeutics, my first target is human insulin, the first commercially available recombinant protein developed in the late 1970’s by Genentech and now off patent. This safe and clean GMO derived Insulin made a sea change difference in life for millions of patients globally with diabetes, prior to this innovation, cow and pig pancreases were ground and diabetics had to inject insulin from other animals in themselves to survive, not only was this pretty undesirable but it was a life or death need and diabetic patients often had shorter life spans as a result (and many in developing countries, as soon as they were diagnosed with diabetes had an immediate death sentence). Yet today, the costs of commercial Insulin are still high in the developed world and those in developing countries struggle to get access to these therapies, many of which children, still die due to lack of access. We’re going to change that and the first step is to show we can make this GMO derived Insulin in the Arcturus Biocloud (which we can) and the total cost? $300.

We (the biohacker space I’m a member of, Counter Culture Labs and Arcturus Biocloud) will open source this insulin and ask for the help of the broader scientific community to further reduce the cost, ensure a cheap method of purifying the insulin and providing quality control. We’d love to one day see affordable, safe and easy to access available globally for everyone and this is just the start.

What is further down the road due to current tech limits / challenges?

Some of the technologies which I think will revolutionize our world are the ability to grow tissues, human organs and perhaps one day, entire bodies (that by the way is a tough one) but Organogenesis isn’t generations away, it’s probably 5-20 years away, that means in the lifetime of most of us, we’ll be able to grow replacement organs, at first starting with simple tissues but then expanding outwards to more complex organs like hearts, lungs and kidneys. We understand at least some of the challenges, one of the biggest is the need to vascularize, encourage the tissues to grow blood vessels to provide nutrients to keep the cells and tissues alive, which is still very hard to do and so far has only been shown in the lab but these challenges are solvable with time and the investment in basic science research. This opens up not just the creation of new organs but lab grown meat (replacing the need to kill animals for food) and more unusual developments like novel biomaterials that can grow themselves and heal themselves when they’re damaged.

Another area, which Ron Shigeta @rshigeta, our Chief Scientific Officer at IndieBio is really excited about (and so are Arvind and I) is the use of neurons as replacement computational devices. We love silicon chips but while current computers are fast, they’re not nearly as versatile as the original super computers that evolution built millions of years ago, so our question is, what if you could grow a small petri dish of neurons (they can be made from converted from standard skin cells), keep them alive with a small bioreactor and use that as a versatile expert processing unit? Imagine if, instead of having to program a self driving car, you could just teach a neuronal chip set how to drive a self driving car and over the years it would get better and better (kind of the opposite of silicon chips)? Then imagine applying that system, which has the potential to far exceed human or silicon capabilities, it could potentially create entirely new industries. The challenge of course is that we don’t even really understand how an individual neuron works particularly well yet, so there could be a long road but building neuronal chip sets (perhaps with thousands of neurons) will definitely help us further understand our own brains and how we understand the world around us.

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Basically your view of what the road map looks like, and what is likely soon?

I have two road maps, the first one we all share within IndieBio  and the future of new biotech, a leaner, faster, more efficient biotech, outside of just the classical biomedical world, harnessing the power of genetic engineering to create new products and services for investments amounts that are competitive with tech investments, one quote which people criticised me for about a year ago was saying that you could build biotech companies with an initial investment as low as $50k, fast forward to today, not only were they wrong but every single one of our first batch of companies developed a product, prototype or service (all 12 of them). Not all of our startups will survive, we know that but about half so far have raised follow on investment, something we’re incredibly proud of!

As a direct result of Moore’s law, the drop in hardware manufacturing costs and an improved understanding of genetic engineering, the previously quiet backwater of science, biology has begun a hardcore acceleration. We’re no longer dependent on just human hands or human minds for analysis, easier to use computers, robotics and analysis programs are emerging that will continue the acceleration.

We’ve already seen the importance of the use of GMO’s in the food we eat (and yes, if you eat cheese, you eat products of GMO’s, even in the EU), in our toothpaste, in our laundry detergents, in our vitamins, in the amino acids we use, these are all made by genetically engineered organisms. We’re going to see a lot more of that, including new innovators, students, freshly minted scientists and laypeople making their own products. We’ll continue to reduce the cost of food production to continue to feed the world with GMO crops, flavorings and new medicines made with GMO’s to treat some of our world’s most devastating diseases, even the scourges of our time, Alzeheimer’s, Diabetes, Global Hunger, might just fall thanks to biotech.

My personal road map and what I believe will happen in the future is to empower a renaissance citizen scientists, millions/billions of people being empowered to do science at home or in community labs (like many of the hacker/biohacker spaces we’ve built), I want to help all of humanity have access to these tools of creation.

Your predictions of the future, what you are excited by?

One of my favorite sayings, when trying to glimpse into the future is a classic William Gibson quote, he said that  “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”. I fully agree with him, there are plenty of people who talk about the future, about technologies that don’t yet exist and dream of machine minds and faster than light space travel, I love those dreams but I keep myself planted very much in the technologies of today, the amazing things, that with a bit of creative thinking can become incredible technologies.

My view, is relatively simple, biology has built the world we know with DNA, a language we can now program, from the clothing that you wear, the food that you eat to the meat bodies our brains operate, this isn’t science fiction, this is science fact.

So I predict that as the costs of research and development in biotech continue to drop (significantly faster than Moore’s law), we’ll see a dramatic increase in people globally, biohacking and working on genetic engineering, looking at developing new proteins, products and exploring the infinite variations that are possible in this ancient programming language, AGCT. I think, as a result, we’ll have to reimagine medicine, food, manufacturing and even space exploration as biology becomes an information technology which can be used to build in the physical world.

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