I had the fantastic opportunity to attend the annual Lift Basel Conference at the end of October. The topics covered as well as the speakers were amazing.
I must admit, it is always refreshing to have access to all those passionate people with jaw-dropping experiences, new companies, innovative business models, renewed thinking (totally out of the box! even without the box!!)…
I really appreciated it and I’m delighted to share the main points with you, one talk at a time with added references on the discussed topic. I hope you’ll enjoy the first day! The second one is coming soon.
Synthetic biology today and tomorrow
Visions of the bioeconomy
Rob Carlson is interested in the future role of biology as a human technology. He has worked to develop new biological technologies in both academic and commercial environments, focusing on molecular measurement and microfluidic systems. He has also developed a number of new technical and economic metrics for measuring the progress of biological technologies.
Rob Carlson has been precisely predicting exponential drops in the costs of DNA sequencing and synthesis (reading and writing DNA), and resulting impacts on the global economy. The Economist magazine in 2006 identified this as the biotechnological equivalent of Moore’s Law, and named it the Carlson Curve after Rob.
It was extremely interesting to see him explaining that, in biology, every piece has its purpose and, then, it can be repurposed. Needless to say, synthetic biology has evolved fantastically over time, from a single gene in a single cell to cell-grown organs as shown in the Nature chart below.
Biotechnology will soon take over the other segments of the economy, like chemicals, energy generation,… Biochemicals are already competing today with oil chemicals. According to the last numbers recently published, biotechnology is the fastest growing field in the US economy. Economics are at the center as they are really driving the adoption of those technologies.
For more on Synthetic Biology, have a look at this article written by Tim Gardner: Synthetic Biology: from hype to impact (quote below).
“The promise of synthetic biology lies in its engineering roots. Engineers are trained to define, modularize, stan-dardize, characterize, specify, optimize, and control physi-cal systems in order to deliver reliable, repeatable outcomes. When such approaches are applied to biological experimentation, the results can be marvelous. When measurement systems and data are standardized and qualified, then biological knowledge can be stacked upon other knowledge in an information supply chain distributed across hundreds of thousands of people. If we standardize and improve the quality of biological characterization, then the tools for efficiently designing and building ever more complex systems will soon follow.”
New food ingredients into custom-built organism
Nature has treasures but sometimes we need huge amounts of raw materials to extract flavors or fragrances in tiny quantities. For example, vanilla is regularly made from petrochemicals and rarely extracted from vanilla seed pods as demand is far larger than supply.
Evolva developed a revolutionary technology to brew flavors from yeast.
For example, to manufacture Stevia, a natural sweetner, Evolva takes the genes the plant uses to make that molecule and put those genes into the yeast so it can make the molecule. They then ferment the yeast by brewing, just like with beer. The yeast takes up the sugar, turns it into Stevia and pumps it out; the yeast is filtered off and Stevia is in the «broth» which can be purified out.
Synthetic biology is an iterative process. It is not smooth, you need to go back and forth at each step. However, it has and will lead transformational changes on today’s science.
For more on Food Ingredients:
Synthetic-biology firms shift focus – Erika Check Hayden – Nature 2014
Synthetic biology is cheaper, faster and more sustainable – Elaine Watson – Food Navigator 2014
Widen everyone’s vision of what you can do with biology – Stephan Emmerth – i-net 2015
Programmable biological agents
According to Xavier Duportet, editing DNA has become as simple as editing a newspaper. It is now possible to modify the DNA with a repair template.
That’s exactly what he’s doing: using CRISPR/Cas for the microbiome engineering. As we all know, antibiotics are not an adequate solution as they kill all the bugs… Bad and good ones. Eligo Bioscience, founded in May 2014 by Xavier Duportet as well as scientists and professors from the Rockefeller University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), found a fantastic way to tackle this issue: hijack the CRISPR/Cas system of the bacteria. Below a video (in French) explaining the technology.
Their “synthetic biology platform, which combines CRISPR/Cas system with engineered phage capsids, develops “eligobiotics”: a new generation of highly precise antimicrobials. They can program the eligobiotics to eliminate bacteria based on the genetic sequences they carry in their genome. As opposed to traditional antibiotics, their sequence-specific antimicrobials can therefore discriminate between close bacterial strains and selectively eradicate harmful bacteria from the microbiome while sparing the beneficial ones.”
Eligo Bioscience is also working on other diseases such as inflamatory bowel disease, acne. The company owns an exclusive license for the use of CRISP in the antibacterials field.
For more on CRISP/Cas:
For more on Eligo Bioscience:
Xavier Duportet, le défricheur interactif – Laure Belot – Le Monde 2015
Xavier Duportet, « innovateur français de l’année » pour le MIT – Perrine Créquy – La Tribune 2015
Eligo Bioscience Raises €2M to Develop CRISPR Antimicrobials – Conor McClune – Synbiobeta 2015
The future of food and beverage
Challenging the cash cows of Big Food
Reto Schnyder expects major disruption in food, especially in the field of business models.
We spend a lot of money on food. The consumer behavior is really changing. More and more online grocery shopping is used, as demonstrated by huge growth rates as well as booming household penetration rates.
Companies are trying hard to stimulate purchases and expand their reach. AmazonDash on AmazonFresh is a wonderful example of what can be done.
Amazon is definitely good at understanding big data and will not put somthing stupid in your basket, it will always suggest you new products to try.
Cooking good food is easier and easier. And this is just the beginning.
Before the food industry structure was: brands – shop – cook.
But now the ranking has changed: cook – shop – brands!
In the cosmetics and toiletries industry, the shaving blades domain has been completely shaken by outsiders, like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s Blades. They put in place subscription services and Dollar Shave Club took over 10% market share in units in USA.
Lesson learned: easy to attack global power brands as they are not invincible.
Wisdom: how can we make our cash cow irrelevant? Disrupt the market before other companies do it.
More on disruption:
10 Disruptive Business Models – Slideshare – Ouke Arts – 2013
How can drones can provide wings to farmers? The use of drones, coupled with analytical tools, could help farmers make better decisions.
Field analysis on foot is only giving a partial view of the crops. With a new software technology, Pix4D, it is possible to “automatically process terrestrial and aerial imagery acquired by light-weight drones or aircraft based purely on image content. This desktop software converts images into highly precise, timely and customizable results for a wide range of GIS and CAD applications.”
Experiments and tests are implemented in order to optimize yields. The systems are also helping to decide when and where to start the harvest.
Moreover, it is incredibly useful to detect diseases early by identifying spectral signatures. With the use big data and re-engineering, close monitoring is now feasible. Flight plan is defined in advance in order to optimize which data to record.
Sensefly is targeting multiple industries like agriculture, mining, humanitarian, environmental protection. Vitiscan is fully dedicated to vineyards.
Those technologies and their applications will lead to more transparency on which species to seed, which and how much fertilizers allowing for better quality and quantity of crops as well as improved variety.
More on precision agriculture with drones:
Why 2015 is the year agriculture drones take off – Clay Dillow – Fortune 2015
Drones and driverless tractors – is this the future of farming? – Peter Moore – The Guardian 2015
Bin Bin Pearce
Transdisciplinarity and design thinking
There are two broad schools of thinking: Design Thinking and Scientific Method.
“Design Thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”
Tim Brown, president and CEO, IDEO
There is no need to say more than the definition given by Tim Brown. It is really self-explanatory.
When it comes to scientific method, the approach is different.
In this way of thinking, you try to understand first, then hypothetize and start data collection, once it’s done you can analyze data and select some criteria. Ultimately, you can ask for peer review and then publish your work.
Neither of these methods serve as a path for the solution to more societal problems. It is then fundamental to combine both of them with system thinking and action. Transdisciplinarity is another crucial component toward solutions.
The main message of the talk was: “Whatever you produce and send to the society has an impact on the society itself. It is crucial to develop self-awareness and impact analysis of actions on society.
More on design thinking:
Design Thinking – Tim Brown – Harvard Business Review 2008
What is Design Thinking? – University of St-Gallen
Design Thinking… What is That? – Fast Company 2006
More on transdisciplinarity:
The Potential of Transdisciplinarity – Helga Nowotny
Foundations of transdisciplinarity – Manfred A. Max-Neef – Ecological Economics 2005