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Biotech Needs Better External Innovation Networks and Think Tanks (Part I)

When we think about forests, we think about trees. Trees are important, but their vitality depends on fungal mycelium, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and many other unseen microbial players.

Science and technology are the most salient features in biotech, yet they exist within highly interdependent ecosystems. If we truly care about advancing science and technology, we must think about the less obvious factors. We need better external innovation networks and think tanks to address the less obvious but extremely consequential problems.

In the same way, when we think about biotech, we often think about new cures, products and discoveries. But these public benefits depend on a complex scientific and technological ecosystem. If we truly care about advancing biotech for the greatest public benefit, we must care for the underlying factors that enable scientific and technological progress to flourish. Specifically, we need better external innovation networks and think tanks to consider and attend to these less obvious but extremely consequential factors.

Culture and public perception: From penicillium mold to penicillin, biotech needs better stories.

For every promising scientific discovery that is translated into real-world impact, countless and similarly promising scientific discoveries fade into oblivion.

Nobel Laureate Alexander Fleming is famous for discovering the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin, when the mold accidentally infected his experiments in a corner of his notoriously untidy lab. But Fleming was not the first person to discover the antibiotic properties of certain molds. Most people have never heard of Fleming’s Nobel Prize co-laureates (Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain), as well as other key researchers who were instrumental in translating Fleming’s initial discovery into the world’s first antibiotic drug. Contrary to what some might think, you can’t grow mold on your window sill and then eat it to cure a bacterial infection. The active penicillin would not be concentrated enough to be effective. It takes specialized skills like natural product extraction and process engineering to produce clinically useful forms of penicillin. In the case of penicillin, it also took the interpersonal and organizational skills of collaborators like Florey and Chain to sell the crazy idea that mold extract could save lives. In Fleming’s case, he was lucky enough to have the right collaborators to overcome whatever shortcomings he might have had in the areas of lab technique and organizational skill.

If we tell a story about the invention of penicillin, we can choose to tell a Disney-version story that ends “happily ever after” with Fleming’s epiphanous discovery, or we can choose to tell the more complicated story that traces the difficult trajectory from Fleming’s initial epiphany to the first patient saved by penicillin. For a long time, we tended to tell simplified tales that obscured the struggles and the triumphs of translating discoveries into technological advances. This has shaped the collective narrative and the public perception of science, which in turn shapes the politics, policies, and funding of science, often to its detriment.

How can we make the world aware of the existence of a potentially world-changing scientific advancement? Build powerful alliances and reach out. How can we make the public understand the complex conditions that have to occur in order for the initial scientific discovery to become real world impact? Tell them the whole story, its triumphs and its tragedies. Truth does not speak, you do. Good things come to those who refuse to wait.

True leaders are the keystone species in the evolution of scitech

Once upon a time, not long ago on an evolutionary timescale, Hawaii was nothing but barren lava rocks raised by underwater volcanoes. Different seeds traveled to the islands through hurricanes or migrating birds. Only Metrosideros polymorpha (fittingly, a plant that blossoms flame-shaped flowers) could take root in such an environment. This hardy little plant spread and  eventually began breaking down the hard volcanic substrate into soils in which other plants could grow. Thus, the beautiful ecosystem and biodiversity that we see in Hawaii today was kick-started.

Consequential events that lead to exponential change are normal, rather than exceptional in natural history, as exemplified when keystone species overcome the fundamental constraints of an environment to enable new possibilities.

The best leaders are like keystone species: they focus on solving bottleneck/constraint problems. This is the true meaning of disruption, and also the best way of generating profit. Many constraints in biotech have nothing to do with technology. Instead, they have more to do with assumptions, orthodox ideas/ideologies, outdated economic models, unscientific management, hegemony/incentive policies, etc. Many of these originate from now-discredited pundits (such as Milton Friedman), whose merits are rarely questioned.

Most institutions evolve like traditions. Leadership and management positions are often viewed as a rite of passage, a reward, instead of a function to serve the greater good. These are the root of many problems. New frontiers of biotech are the transformation of ideologies and the redesign of organizational structure/policy. First-principle thinkers and those who display the capacity for transformative leadership and for non-conformist thinking must be empowered and promoted. Decision makers must be encouraged to have meaningful crosstalk with people within the field as well as outside of biotech. Most importantly, they must engage with people who have very different and diverse experiences. Not everyone agrees that monoculture is extremely dangerous, but most people would understand that diverse teams always outcompete non-diverse teams: this is both intuitively true and well supported by extensive researches and data. Broad interactions and cognitive diversity help form a better consensus about what problems should be first addressed. I suggest focusing on the leverage points and the problems with the highest impact versus effort ratio first. I also suggest promoting “deep learning” (the capacity to acquire new ways of thinking, instead of superficial accumulation of knowledge) as a requisite function/duty of leadership. Such a requirement would have many benefits, including the deflation of confirmation bubbles.

Resisting reductionism and quantitative fallacy: True Cambrian explosion V.S. faux Cambrian explosion

The Cambrian Explosion has been used as a metaphor for the drastic increase of the number of tech/app startups due to a rush of investments. Considering the number and apparent redundancy of many of these startups, we wonder how many sexting apps, ad tech, and food delivery services humanity desperately needs. This type of proliferation is not a Cambrian Explosion: it’s factory farm animal breeding.

Looking at high-tech industries solely through the lens of profit and production is misleading at best, and it is destructive at worst. Often, the easily quantifiables are not wrong per se, but they are incomplete and obscure the true determinants of value to society. The tyranny of reductionism and quantitative fallacy forces companies and people to contort themselves to fit unrealistic modes. The process of focusing on measuring simple markers changes the selective pressures within a system, often to the detriment of precious communities within.

The Cambrian Explosion is about the rapid increase of diversity and complexity, not about the rapid increase of population. One facilitates mutualistic symbiosis and sustainable change; the other exhausts limited resource and causes unsustainable bubbles.

Directed evolution in time of great crisis

Without first-principle design or directed intervention, the natural course of evolution seems to work things out over time, except when it doesn’t: Just ask the dinosaurs, the Neanderthals, and the Dodo birds. Not everyone agrees that there is something fundamentally broken about our society, but almost everyone would agree that there are many things that can and must be fixed if humanity wants to have a future. Every field has its own historical baggage and structural flaws, and biotech is no exception. We must acknowledge them and confront them head-on.  

From climate crisis to the sixth mass extinction to post-antibiotic apocalypse, the window of action is closing. It’s time to take drastic actions. It’s time to bring holistic thinking (such as a symbiotic, collaborative mindset) to cultural engineering, institution management, and corporate design. We must see everything within the context of the interdependency, connectivity, and complexity that are the hallmarks of a vibrant ecosystem. The future belongs to those who terraform the entire business/cultural ecosystem through rewriting the connections between the dots. We can achieve this by creating better external innovation networks and think tanks. Airbnb’s Brian Chesky has said, “To reinvent an industry, you do not take inspiration directly from that industry, you need to look at orthogonal industries.” In order to reinvent biotech, we need to study and explore outside of our field for inspirations and innovation templates.

We will dive deeper into what these networks and think tanks should be like in Part II. For inspiration of external innovation networks and think tanks, here are some of my recommendations:

This article is an opinion piece adapted from an older article written by the author.

 

Yan Liu

Yan Liu

Yan Liu, Project Specialist at SynBioBeta, is a creative storyteller, a strategist, a visionary who excels at complex thinking and out of box problem solving. He brings talented people together, and he helps people know what they don’t know. He is interested in interdisciplinary matters and social-political issues. Yan is working on finding better ways to integrate science into the fabric of society.

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