Singularity University Blog | WIRED: “Singularity University, day two: Biotech & bioinformatics, with Andrew Hessel”

November 9, 2009

Singularity University Blog — Nov 9, 2009 | Singularity University staff

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Wired Senior Editor Ted Greenwald is embedded with Singularity University’s inaugural 10-day Executive Program. Follow his coverage of the entire program at Ted is also Tweeting using #singularityu.

See Ted’s full post at

Andrew Hessel

Biotech is a hidebound industry. Elephantine budgets. Glacial development timelines. Stultifying regulatory oversight. Pitiful productivity. Andrew Hessell, once employed by a major biotech drug developer (unnamed) and now an evangelist of synthetic biology, observes that, while biotech and IT share important characteristics — both had similar inception dates and depend on information — they’ve followed completely different trajectories.

The reasons, he says, boil down to greed and fear. Where the captains of IT formed partnerships, forged standards, and opened their source code (however reluctantly), biotech moguls protected their turf tooth and claw, and still do.

Now biotech’s dark lords face a digital-age army, people raised with a networked mindset, bent on taking over the territory. And that, in Hessel’s view, makes biotech the next IT.

The price of gene sequencing is falling precipitously; the $1000 human genome is on the horizon. Inexpensive tools are becoming available, such as LavaAmp, a $10 gene amplifier, currently in prototype. Meanwhile, molecular biologists are beginning to understand how to engineer processes like photosynthesis and sugar metabolism.

MIT’s BioBricks program is recruiting hundreds of bright students every year, teaching them how to create synthetic organisms by snapping together DNA components like Legos. Student teams are engineering new industrial processes and programming VR biotech training. And the DIYbio movement is gaining momentum, poised to make end runs around industry and government. “This isn’t heavy programming,” Hessel says. “More like writing a script for Excel.”

The reward? Multibillion-dollar opportunities removing bottlenecks from the current system. People need drugs. They value health. They will pay for a new generation of medicines, diagnostics, protective measures, tests and measurements. Make biotech more like infotech, Hessel says, and it will happen.

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