November 13, 2018

Synthetic biology and the brain: Bryan Johnson and Ed Boyden on The Neobiological Revolution

The second day of SynBioBeta 2018 started off in a big way, with NEO.LIFE founder Jane Metcalfe moderating the keynote fireside chat “Neuroscience and synthetic biology: The neobiological revolution.” Metcalfe was joined by OS Fund co-founder Bryan Johnson and MIT Media Lab’s Ed Boyden for an incredibly interesting conversation about the future of neuroscience.

Johnson, the entrepreneur and investor, had big ideas and bold, disruptive plans for the future of humanity. Boyden, the academic, approached each of Metcalfe’s questions more carefully, describing incremental movements toward innovation. But it was clear that both were focused on a single idea — a neobiological revolution.

The problem: underfunded science

Johnson suggested that in fifteen years, technology that interfaces with our brains will be as common as smartphones.

“We have an Apple Watch that tracks heartbeat or a Fitbit that tracks our steps or sleep patterns, but we currently don’t have any tools that enable us to know what is going on in our minds,” Johnson said. “My objective is to enable the tools that allow us to peer into our minds and see the inner workings. If we have that data available to us, an entire ecosystem can emerge, and we can start nudging our cognition.”

But that ecosystem feels a long way off when neuroscience had difficulties getting investors excited and onboard with their projects. Johnson is the co-founder of OS Fund, which invests in biological technologies in the hopes of “radically improving ourselves beyond our imagination.” Johnson has devoted OS Fund to biological investments because he saw that science was woefully underfunded.

“Most of the wealth is owned or managed by people who don’t have formal scientific training,” he said, adding that, “People are more inclined to invest in things they are familiar with.” This is a problem, because as Johnson put it, we are made of biology and live on a ball of biology floating with space — and knowing how to engineer biology is critically important.

Bryan Johnson

Bryan Johnson at SynBioBeta 2018

Science investment struggles against the prevailing narrative that it takes multiple decades to see any valuable return. Investors are discouraged from funneling money into projects that take too long to come to fruition, if ever.

“You can build a computer program or a machine, and if you do it properly there is a pretty good chance it will work every time,” Boyden, associate professor at the MIT Media Lab and founder of Cognito Therapeutics, said. “But in medicine, things fail for the stupidest reasons many years into a project.”

This is precisely the fear investors have in making big bets on scientific innovation. But Johnson has a different view. He thinks that narrative is vastly misunderstood. OS Fund is among the top 10 percent of US funds according to Pitchbook in 2014. Out of the 28 investments, 27 were successful enough to warrant further investment, four are valued at over a billion dollars, and two have been acquired.

“The companies we invest in are generating revenue in 1 to 3 years,” Johnson said. Some of the companies OS Fund invests in have even broken even while bringing practical products to market. “It’s nothing like what [most people] think,” said Johnson. These deep tech applications are not “moonshots,” but potentially world-changing efforts.

But communicating the problems these companies are solving is just as important as demonstrating their financial success. By showing investors how these complex biological technologies map to the things they care about, like the prevention of brain disease, Johnson is able to get investors excited. The combination of good business interests and doing good for humanity is the holy grail of investment for a Silicon Valley bigwig.

Realizing the neobiological revolution

But once investors are onboard to fund neuroscience, the question is: how to start a neuroscientific revolution? How do companies, laboratories, and universities create the most impactful tools to make the brain more accessible?

“I think we are very early in the neuroscience revolution,” Boyden said. “I think in the next 50 years we will see a huge revolution in how we understand and augment the brain, but I think there will need to be many small revolutions along the way.”

Boyden champions systematic engineering and innovation over serendipity. He starts by thinking about a base problem and then brainstorming of every possible solution. As each possibility is tested, he expects and needs failure to inform what comes next. Slowly and methodically, he inches closer to a solution.

“Random isn’t a scalable way for innovation,” he said. “Everything [in biology] is creativity and luck, but you can maximize your luck by being systematic.”

While Boyden’s approach to a neuroscientific revolution takes small steps, Johnson takes those ideas and expands them into grand dreams. Johnson’s tendency to think big is most apparent through his self-assigned challenge of writing A Plan for Humanity. This part of his personality is why he is such a successful investor and entrepreneur.

“Both thought styles are needed,” Johnson said. “The academics are needed to push the science forward one step at a time. Once it leaves an academic environment, it opens up an opportunity for a different thought style. The human race is moving forward at a velocity we never have before, and that requires us to think really big and well beyond our imagination.”

Ed Boyden and Jane Metcalfe at SynBioBeta 2018

Is dissecting our innermost thoughts ethical?

Dissecting our brains, and collecting granular and intimate details of our thought processes, can understandably make people nervous. Johnson says privacy and hacking are often the first things people bring up after telling them about his neuroscience investments.

“This is going to be a very complicated technology that introduces a lot of moral and ethical problems, but those things don’t mean we shouldn’t do it,” Johnson said. “But it does mean that the people who bring these technologies to market need to be uniquely thoughtful.”

Boyden suggests it’s important to have ethical discussions and talk about these topics to avoid future mistakes. Science and medicine are also heavily regulated industries, and this process should help prevent catastrophes.

But beyond privacy concerns, sometimes having too much information or too much data can be paralyzing. Humans don’t always make better decisions with more information. As scientists and technologies are able to track our brain functions, will humans be able to cope with that much insight into our thought processes?

“We aren’t trying to flood the world with more data, we are trying to quantify what is actually happening in our minds,” Johnson said. “These tools would be aimed at fixing that problem and improving cognition.”

Here, the investor and the academic once again align completely in pursuit of their common goal.

“There is access, and then there is understanding,” Boyden said. “I think more understanding is absolutely good. If we understand the mechanisms behind how the brain works that gives us the knowledge of human existence. My personal hope for neuroscience is that we use it to better understand the human condition. I think if we try to augment without understanding it could really backfire.”

Everything that exists for humans is downstream from our brain. Our realities, our decisions, our thoughts, and our feelings are all created in a three-pound sphere of tissue in our skulls, so understanding it is critical for the next phase of humanity. Boyden and Johnson — each with their unique personalities and approaches — are two of our best guides to get there.


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