Retail biology



The recent sad news about Steve Jobs got me thinking about the evolution of markets. In the early years of “information and communication technologies” (ICT) there was an obvious focus on the mainstays. People like Jobs and Bill Gates focused on the hardware and software that would ultimately drive the nascent industry.

Biology is following a similar path, with a natural focus on the development of the main platforms that have gradually improved and been refined much in the same way as ITC. However, like ICT, many (myself included) expect that we are on the brink of an explosion of new, smaller, but very important fragment markets that are best described as consumer biology or perhaps retail biology.

Just as fortunes were made by the designers and manufacturers of the humble mouse mat after the launch of the Apple Macintosh, we are likely to see consumer products exponentially increasing. It is difficult for us now to fully appreciate the number of tiny ICT devices that populate our cars, kitchen goods and even children’s toys; but the time is ripe for a new generation of biotech entrepreneurs to look for novel ways to create consumer products using biological advancements.

It isn’t clear what these products will be or where they might come from, but the starting embers of this revolution can be seen in projects like MIT’s synthetic biology BioBrick programme for schools, where engineering principles are applied to creating genuine, novel and, importantly, useful biological tools. Again, taking a page out of the ICT book, the synergy that could be created by combining novel engineering, exciting design and biological innovation is difficult to overemphasize. There is no way to gauge the potential size of retail biology, but it’s likely to be huge. The initial products probably will be in the food or energy sectors but not on a massive industrial scale. More likely to be smaller, domestic-scale ideas with the potential to catch fire.

For example, in energy, decades of research into the use of biological “feedstocks” for the production of biofuels – mainly biodiesel – are now bearing commercial fruit. Many countries (and some US States – notably Iowa) have taken leadership positions and made huge commitments to this fledgling industry. It’s fair to say that the jury is still out on whether this enormous investment will ever make biofuels the sole replacement for fossil fuels in transportation, but how about retail consumer-level biofuels? Surely, we could very soon see our local Home Depot or Home Base stores selling small toaster- or microwave-sized bioreactors that fit on our patios and generate fuel for our mowers, mulchers or BBQ. With a clever design and some genetically modified microalgae (e.g. from Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics, or George Church’s Joule Unlimited) we might have a whole new industry of consumer energy products.

In the food industry, a fear of diminishing food security in the 21st century could get consumers happily shopping for generic protein sources, rather than specific meats like beef, pork or chicken. This surely offers opportunities for entrepreneurial biotechnologists to create novel means to use currently unpalatable sources, such as insects or molluscs. In fact, entophagy (to use the correct terminology), is alive and well in Southeast Asia but is an almost negligible market in the West. Clever biotechnology could, by either altering the insects themselves or by altering their environment, find efficient and sustainable ways to industrialise the farming and harvesting of large flying insects in a similar way to our current harvesting of prawns and shrimp from the oceans. Fresh frozen “locust burgers” in our local supermarkets may not be that far off.

Similarly, the recent invasion of huge numbers of giant African snails that has blighted Florida and many Caribbean islands could easily be turned to the advantage of entrepreneurial scientists with an innovative way to package the protein content.

I will miss Steve Jobs, especially his focus on innovative design and his way of delivering the final product with a flourish. He once famously said, “You know a design is good when you want to lick it.” I now officially throw down the gauntlet to this generation of biotech entrepreneurs – show us something that we want to lick.

Chris Hillier

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