In mid-2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding, the McKinsey Global Institute released its report on ‘The Bio Revolution.’ With promises of gene editing to decrease disease burden, data storage using DNA, and an opportunity in the near-term of capturing part of a $4 trillion market, the Bio Revolution should excite many. In this report, key areas of innovation and application of the coming Bio Revolution are detailed, along with a plethora of real-world examples. There is also an economic analysis, and safety and ethical considerations are discussed. It is an approachable primer to the future of biotechnologies impact on society for those with and without domain expertise. I find these large institutional reports to have two characteristics: 1) they are quickly added to my personal reading list; and 2) they are long-lived on my reading list. I write this in hopes of easily disseminating the core information of the report, as well as inspiring others inside the biotechnology fields to read similar reports. Understanding how broader economic actors view our fields may be critical for future advances, as individuals and as an industry.
The report identifies four areas of science and technology innovation, namely: biomolecules, biosystems, biomachines, and biocomputing. Within these areas, there are innovations focused on mapping, and on engineering. For example, one can map biomolecules (e.g. genomics) and engineer biomolecules (e.g. CRISPR). I found this classification useful for understanding biotechnology outside of my domain expertise, and an interesting exercise is to try to place people who you know work in biotechnology into these fields. Biomachines and biocomputing may sound more futuristic then biomolecules and biosystems, and you would be right; while McKinsey identifies these areas of innovation as current major themes, they note that actual commercialization of these science in these areas is farther out than in the biomolecule and biosystem areas. As I spend most of my time thinking about biomolecules anyways, I will highlight two points of interest: 1) the report emphasized the lack of investment and development of some ‘omics’ technologies (e.g. glycomics, lipidomics) as well as a lack of integration of these different ‘omics;’ and 2) there was really no discussion about the delivery problem of engineering biomolecules. This second point I found curious considering the significance of the delivery problem as a severe bottleneck to gene therapies.
In the coming Bio Revolution, these four innovation areas can immediately impact: human health and performance; agriculture, aquaculture, and food; consumer products and services; and materials, chemicals, and energy. In this framework, multiple innovation areas can impact each of these sectors. For example, engineering biomolecules can lead to more resilient crops, and mapping biosystems can lead to lab-grown meat; both of these areas impact agriculture, aquaculture, and food applications. With this complete system, the report discusses many promising applications and path to commercialization. Additionally, the report emphasizes the coming transformations will have many knock-off effects. How will the pharmaceutical industry change its business model once diseases are no longer treated but cured? How will health and life insurance change with and older and healthier population? If lab-grown meat is adopted, what will the previous agricultural land be used for? To me, these questions and others emphasis the true disruption to markets, economies, and societies that the Bio Revolution represents.
Along with the promising innovation and application areas, the McKinsey Global Institute stressed the safety and ethical challenges involved with this suite of new technologies, and specifically described these concerns as unique to biological systems. The concerns spanned from data privacy to genetically engineered embryos to widening inequality: and at the intersections of these concerns. For example, access to gene editing could lead to an upper class that can now obtain economic and genetic advantages not available to others. Yuvel Noah Harari warns of this ‘superhuman’ race in Homo Deus, and this report echoes these concerns that could potentially result from the Bio Revolution. While it was refreshing to read these concerns, I felt the prescribed solutions were either lacking or aspirational. McKinsey’s report calls for an international approach to regulation to avoid culture value system differences, and asks governments and individuals to become bioliterate to better control the Bio Revolution. Our collective responses to climate change and pandemics do not set a great example…
Overall, this report provides an accessible and optimistic view of the Bio Revolution. The coming wave of technology advances can benefit the future in all areas of our lives. But it is going to take hard working scientists, intelligent allocation of capital, informed governmental regulation, and educated individuals to ensure the Bio Revolution maximizes the potentials gains and minimizes the potential risks. Hopefully, that is not too much to ask for.