Future opportunities for the next Intel or Microsoft, explained by Juan Enriquez

uan Enriquez, author of As The Future Catches You, is a managing director of Excel Venture Management, Boston, investing in life-science technologies, and is a cofounder and shareholder of Synthetic Genomics. He talks to Richard Whelan.

RW: You say – look beyond the current financial meltdown, technology is changing all the rules, prepare to profit from the new economic order coming down the tracks. What do you mean?

JE: Three big breakthroughs are imminent. One we can engineer body parts, two we can engineer cells to fundamentally change the range of products we produce, and three, our old friend the robot is about to take on a whole new life. Put another way, three major technology breakthroughs are ready for implementation. The programming of tissues,the ability to engineer cells, and a quantum leap in the programming of robots. Think of what the world was like before the the silicon chip, and the changes it brought. We are on the cusp of a threefold wave of change which will fundamental alter life and living, and the global economy, forever.

RW: Are you saying that we can we look forward to developing body parts – to order?

JE: Getting there. Already very young children can regrow parts of fingers. Some salamanders naturally regrow body parts. We know enough now to grow skin cells into other body parts. At Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Anthony Atala is growing human bladders and ears in glass containers. At Harvard Medical School, Cliff Tabin is growing extra wings on chickens. Think of people waiting for liver transplants being able to grow their own.

RW: Programming of cells – what does that mean?

JE: Recently researchers at the J. Craig Ventner institute in Maryland and Synthetic Genomics in California took a mycoplasma cell and inserted long strands of DNA into it. Before that they built the equivalent of a complete software package to programme cells. This means, in effect, we can convert cells into programmable manufacturing entities. Researchers at MIT have put together a standard registry of biological parts – think of it as a parts bin for cells. Last year Rice University students attempted to engineer resveratrol (which makes red wine good for you) into beer. The pint of lager which fights cancer is no longer an impossible dream. Apply that progress across a range of products and the patterns of what we produce, and what we consume is all on the table for huge change. And for kidney transplant patients, work is in progress to modify stomach bacteria to get it to act as a kidney.

RW: And the robots…

JE: They come in all sizes. From the tiny up. The robot age is about to begin. All types of surveillance, transport and communication are going to change utterly. At Harvard Robert Wood is designing robots the size of flies. Boston Dynamic’s BigDog robot is going to change how we look at transport, logistics and maybe even warfare. BigDog can carry 350 pounds across rough terrain, ice and snowy mountain ridges. Add into the mix the amazing advances in information processing and storage coming in ever-smaller packages, and we are going to see breakthroughs we have to struggle to imagine today. Remember the double amputee sprinter Oscar Pretorius who ran on carbon fibre artificial legs? He narrowly failed to qualify. I’m confident that a “disabled” person will win an Olympic medal very soon.

Think packaging. Wal Mart grows biodegradable plastic for disposable food containers. Think of how much of your car is plastic, and therefore growable. Toyota is on the case already. Start transferring that thinking to sectors like pharmaceuticals, life sciences you are looking at becoming the next, Intel, Google and Microsoft, all of which are probably in decline now. And that is only the stuff we make. We are beginning to engineer human life. Homo sapiens is becoming Homo evolutus. We are, yet again, after at least twenty-two previous iterations, evolving into a new species of humanoid.

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