“I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology,” said Apple co-founder Steve Jobs when asked where he thought the next economic revolution would be – “A new era is beginning.”
Our ability to program biology could drive the economy for the next century. This pursuit, known as synthetic biology, has already created revolutionary products in agriculture, consumer goods, and more. Over the past decade, California — together with Massachusetts — has received the lion’s share of U.S. synthetic biology investments. Out of a total of more than $12 billion invested in the last 10 years, California has brought in $5.3B and Massachusetts $4.4B.
Here’s why the Golden State leads this little-known but fast-growing industry, and how other states can model their bioeconomies to share in the prosperity.
California has birthed technological revolutions before. In the twentieth century, the famed garages of Silicon Valley produced the likes of Apple and Hewlett-Packard — two startups that grew to reshape the economies of California and the world. But in 1976, the same year that Apple was founded, another startup was formed.
Genentech was the first modern biotechnology company. Based in South San Francisco, it produced what is arguably the first synthetic biology product: human insulin. Instead of diabetics needing to use insulin extracted from the pancreases of pigs, Genentech used synthetic DNA to make the gene for human insulin, and then spliced it into a bacterium. They then used fermentation and brewing to convert the sugar into insulin. Just like how beer is brewed.
Human insulin was Genentech’s first blockbuster drug and has helped to set the stage for the entire bio pharmaceutical sector. The company has since gone on to treat many diseases using drugs that are built with biology, including many of the new advanced cancer medications.
A new breed of biologists thinks it can do much better. Synthetic biology startups aim to develop living medicines, make industrial farming more sustainable, and help solve the climate crisis by using CO2 to manufacture everything from plastics to chemicals and new materials.
California’s ‘pay it forward’ venture capital culture — along with its world-class research universities, beautiful surroundings, and nice weather — makes it a natural home for such futurists. These fertile conditions are impossible to replicate, but other regions need not try.
California boasts not only elite private universities like Stanford, but it also has one of the most economically vibrant public university systems, the University of California (above). Image courtesy of brainchildvn on Flickr
But as the US funding map shows, the bioeconomy is not spread evenly. After California and Massachusetts, the next closest state is North Carolina with an investment 10 times less than the two leading states. There are 34 states that have almost no synthetic biology investment at all.
In July, I proposed a new initiative called the Bio-Belt which is aimed at a bioeconomy for all – investment across the country to better take part in the coming biology boom. Places without major established biotechnology hubs can play crucial roles because they possess the land, raw material, and workforces needed to scale-up the manufacturing of new synthetic biology products.
If agricultural extension schools, community colleges, and national research laboratories outside dense urban areas are expanded now, they will create a pipeline of individuals with the skills needed to work in regional biotech clusters.
Even within California, synthetic biology activity has not been widespread. Since 2009, the state’s relatively small Bay Area has seen over 75 percent ($4 billion) of all synthetic biology investments in the state, with the San Diego region taking a distant second with $776M. Many parts of the state have not had any investment, and bioeconomy growth is benefitting only a small part of the state right now.
This distribution does not reflect what’s possible. The state’s Central Valley is a bread basket brimming with biomass — the raw material that provides sugar to the fermentors that can make all these new products — to fuel the synthetic biology industry’s growth.
Spreading opportunity to more regions of the state to see all regions rise together is a central focus of California Governor Gavin Newsom and his Chief Economic and Business Advisor, Lenny Mendonca. “If we want to build an economy that works for all Californians, not just those who live on the coast, it will require us to do more and to do so in partnership with the private sector,” Mendonca told the Hill.
Why have some regions risen and others have not? If you break down the data into congressional districts in California, then U.S. representatives Jackie Spier (D-CA-14), Barbara Lee (D-CA-13), Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-12), and John Garamendi (D-CA-3) are all in the top 5 districts receiving private investment, along with Scott Peters (D-CA-52) from San Diego.
These particular members of Congress have taken active roles in the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, and general oversight of the environment — the bodies with the ability to set strong policies for a vibrant bioeconomy.
We need to join in a more robust conversation at the state and federal levels about how and why we encourage and incentivize synthetic biology infrastructure and investment in academia, government, and industry. If other states wish to see similar growth in their bioeconomies, they should urge their representatives to set strong bioeconomy policies.
San Francisco, Boston, and San Diego have become engines for synthetic biology discovery. Now it is up to the rest of the country to harvest the benefits of the coming bioeconomy.