Biology: The Next Wave

November 6, 2019

Waves of Innovation 🔗︎

Historically, revolutionary ideas (the Internet being the most recent example) trigger decades of percolating innovation as existing technologies, systems, and ways of thinking are progressively forced into retirement when better solutions are found. The ability to richly communicate in a high-bandwidth fashion with anyone around the world in an instant cast off a constraint that percolated immediately through some problems (email! knowledge search!), and is still percolating and changing our lives in others (smart homes! last-mile logistics!). Computing has had an incredible run in the last half century, and will surely contribute to solving a great many more human problems in the next.

It’s human nature to try and spot the next wave, however, and I’d like to make the case for Biology.

Necessity, the Mother 🔗︎

Many have made the case that advancements like CRISPR (or the even more recent Prime Editing) have launched Biology into an age of read/write capabilities, where it has now become an Engineering discipline and is ripe for optimization.

I’d like to make a simpler case: economic value must eventually derive from value created for consumers (there are many notable exceptions, but this is an aphorism of the type “all companies are eventually valued as a multiple of earnings”), and if we look at the problems that deeply plague peoples’ lives right now, the problems potentially addressable by Biology & Life Sciences seem to be the most universally beneficial. I’d like to note that there are deep problems that are perhaps even more significant, such as income inequality, or our societal response to increasing levels of automation, but these problems are not appropriately solved by building a product or new technology.

Healthcare spending accounts for roughly 18% of GDP, and the magnitude of the opportunity far exceeds this - the under-utilization of cost-effective preventative care is already widely known, but people go every day with aches, pains, and other ailments that bother them but for which they forgo engaging with the medical system because visiting the doctor every time you get an ache would be a waste and the doctor would most likely not be able to do anything. The true opportunity lies in the consumer surplus of all of these problems that we have learned helplessness for, because we have never come close to having the tools that would actually enable us to solve them in any way. How much human value lies in not being limited by our bodies to do the things we want? In not feeling chronic pain? In avoiding premature death? Or avoiding death entirely? And providing this across the entire world?

Future Retrospectives 🔗︎

If we apply the mental model of looking back on our lives 50 years from now and imagining what will seem the most antiquated or barbaric, Healthcare seems likely to be high on that list. We’re a long way from bloodletting and leeches, but many of our most widely used tools are shockingly (almost comically) blunt.

  • Many Chemotherapy drugs essentially target cells that “divide fast” - which can hit cancers, but also hits all sorts of naturally occuring cells in the human body.
  • Antiobiotics basically indiscriminately kill bacteria - some of which are important for our health.
  • Structural damage (broken bones, deep cuts) are resolved by holding the broken parts together and hoping the body fixes it.
  • Nutrition seems to change advice every decade, and the one piece that does seem to be consistent is that “eating less will help you lose weight”.

Even “exotic” treatments such as Platelet-Rich Plasma therapy are shockingly basic in terms of our understanding of the body - we just extract things that we believe to assist with the body’s own healing processes, and inject a bunch of them into the places that we think need healing.

There is a lot of room for better solutions to these problems, and there are a huge number of problems that are consequential to everybody. The wave of biological innovation will come eventually - out of necessity.