When Time Magazine named You as the person of the year, they did it based on your ability to write encyclopedias, publish newspapers and create virtual world avatars. But you are capable of so much more. I doubt, that even in their wildest stretch of imagination, Time could not give you credit for your ability to isolate human epithelial amniotic stem cells from your placenta, all in the comfort of your own home. Surely I must be joking. Absolutely not.
Welcome to open source science, welcome to do-it-yourself biology.
Read this marvelous post by my friend Attila Csordas, claiming that ” isolating stem cells from the placenta is not more difficult than making a steak, and with proper preparation, investment and timing you can do it even at home…” There is a picture of how to do it and clear steps on how to do it. What’s amazing is that if you read the instructions in Attila’s post, you can see that they are not impossible, but more importantly, each step is well documented with links into very useful information about each step. Step 8 says you need to ‘wash the amnion in a phosphate buffered saline solution’. No problem, here is the wikipedia entry on how to create it. The point is that the know-how is out there for all to learn. And there will be a lot more of it coming.
Use your imagination here, and think what that could mean for the future. With so much information on the Internet and such ready access to scientific data, what Attila wrote about could very well be commonplace in 5-10 years. This is a world where people could be “playing around” with their own biology. There was a time when woodworking equipment was too expensive for a single person to own. Technology advanced and they got smaller and cheaper and found a place in the garage empowing consumers to build their own tables and chairs. There was a time when computers were too expensive for a single person to own. Moore’s Law changed that, and PC found their way into the home. Who’s to say biological equipment won’t be cheap enough one day for people to own and play with? I see two big impacts to society.
First, tinkering is the best way to invent things, and this would really push the envelope in scientific and practical discovery. Going back to my prior example, nobody can deny the impact individual programmers and hackers have had on the computing industry. In my earlier days, when I was writing networking software for a living I worked together with a bona-fide hacker. I asked him why he hacked sites and his answer was “because I can.” Extrapolate this to biology. One day somebody will take his dog to the vet and say that the dog’s blood type is C+, a home grown hacked blood type that works. When the vet asks why he did it the bio-hacker will say “because I can”. And so will biology advance.
Second, if you think governments are having a hard time figuring out the laws to govern file sharing, let’s see how they’ll deal with “amateur genetic engineering”. This will be a huge issue. Imagine people coming up with “user generated biotechnology”. Much better than the corporate biotechnology where its one drug fits all. How will all that be regulated? It’s a big question and my friend Kevin Dewalt goes deeper into this, I recommend you read it.
So what’s a VC to do here? Where are the investment opportunities? They are likely a long way away, but still, I’d look at some of the biological services we get today, cosmetics, vaccinations, just to name a few, and analyze their cost structures. What does it cost today, what does it need to be and what factors could drive costs down to the point where one can start tinkering with their own drugs on their own pets (OK lab rats), or their own cosmetic implants? Most likely the opportunities are there.