Vijay Chandru
Founder Director
Strand Life Sciences

Exponential Technology Laws and The Future of Genomics

The obvious question to ask is if India has a play that can help us ride these singularities created by exponential technology laws in genomics?

In 2016, at a Carnegie Foundation (India) event in Bangalore, a senior leader of the information technology industry in India, Nandan Nilekani, made a remark that apparently 2007 was when it all (planet scale computing and communications) began happening. That remark by India’s technology czar on the inflection in technology over 10 years back deserved more investigation. I was concurrently reading a fascinating book The Second Machine Age which is a commentary by economists Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee on work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. The authors point out that all kinds of technology-driven singularities are beginning to manifest in the last few years. Science fiction is turning into reality at a speed which is breathtaking.

The exponential Moore’s Law of semiconductor computing technology is clearly the cause of the second machine age. To explain the exponential growth, Brynjolfsson and McAfee use the example from the Indian fable about doubling rice grains on subsequent squares of the 64 square grids on a chessboard. Place one single grain of rice on the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the third, and so on, so that each square receives twice as many grains as the previous. When the chessboard is half covered the 32nd square has roughly 4 billion grains or 4,294,967,295 grains to be precise on it and if we went all the way to the 64th square, we would wind up with more than 18 quintillion grains of rice. The singularities are in the second half of the chessboard – the steep effects of the exponential curve define the singularity.

How does all this connect with Nandan’s remark? Well if you consider 1958, the date of the first registration of a semiconductor company, as the start of Moore’s Law. Now consider doubling at a frequency of one every 18 months (Moore’s Law), we reach 232 or the second half of the chessboard 48 years later bringing us to 2006. Nandan was spot on in stating that 2007 was when it all began happening.

There is yet another exponential technology law that we will all learn to be awestruck by in the years to come as it drives a different set of science fiction scenarios to reality. It should drive huge adoption of biotechnology in improving the human condition in health, food, and energy security and environmental sustainability. If so this will certainly be the century of life sciences and the foundation of Industry 5.0.

A natural question then to ask is, when does the second half of the chessboard kick in for genomics? Here is a rough calculation. The start date for genomics is when Applied Biosystems commercialized the sequencing technology in 1984 first proposed by Fred Sanger in 1977 and improved upon by Leroy Hood and Lloyd Smith at Caltech. So from 1984 to 2007 (round 24 years) we had sequencing costs go down with the rate of Moore’s law – the initial flat part of Flatley’s Law above. So Sanger helped us get about 216 of the way. After 2008, we have the advent of NGS (next-generation sequencing) technology which has sped up the clock. If you look at the curve above, it is sometimes said that Flatley Curve is now moving as the square of Moore. To be generous, let us say that instead of 18 months, genomics is doubling at about 6 months. So 2008–2016 has got us from 216 to 232 and voilà we are in the second half of the proverbial chessboard. The new Novaseq platforms from Illumina have defined a path to a USD 100 cost of sequencing a whole human genome. According to Professor Charles Cantor, a pundit of genomics, the USD 100 price is a serious tipping point for the field.

Battelle Technology Partnership Practice in their 2011 report Economic Impact of the Human Genome Project estimated that between 1988 and 2010, federal investment in genomic research generated an economic impact of USD 796 billion. Since the Human Genome Project (HGP) spending between 1990 and 2003 amounted to USD 3.8 billion, this equates to a return on investment of 141:1 (i.e., every USD 1 invested by the US government generated USD 141 in economic activity). You can well imagine what the impact in the 2011–2020 would be in the singularity zone with President Obama’s precision medicine initiative to sequence one million citizens, the White House initiatives in metagenomics, and the moon shot on cancer and the many large population studies springing up around the world that the US biotechnology industry is enabling.

And this excitement about genomics is really just the tip of the iceberg. The next wave of the Genomics Revolution comes from our ability to write on genomes, , to edit, and modify them. This will have enormous impact because we will be able to do this for plant genomes, for animals, for improving sustainability of the planet and eradication of serious pandemics and industrial applications with engineered microbes, etc. The Financial Times in March 2018, named this as the greatest discovery since Darwin and Prof Jennifer Doudna, a pioneer in gene editing calls this a crack in creation.  A recent reputable private equity report on the revolution in genomic medicine using gene therapies and genome editing estimates the total addressable market at USD 4.8 trillion just in the western markets.

The success of the Indian IT industry in the latter part of the 20th century owes a great deal to the visionaries in the government in the 1960s and 1970s. First the Department of Electronics identified software led exports as a segué for Indian export promotion in 1972 and provided resources to buy computers and get the private sector to speed up. Then we had STP (software tech parks) in the 80s and 90s that provided shelter for the industry to import equipment at competitive prices, tax holidays, and free connectivity to the internet. The leg up that the industry received for these two decades is sometimes overlooked in the facetious praise of benign neglect by the government as the reason for success of the IT sector. The truth is that the government provided the right help at the right time and did not over-regulate the sector once it was off to the races, a marvellous example of directed public policy in technology.

The obvious question to ask is if India has a play that can help us ride these singularities created by exponential technology laws in genomics? India has already succeeded in localizing biopharmaceuticals, cinema, satellite and cellular communications, cable television, radio, and computing. Can it do the same for genomics? What are the right levers to push this sector of Indian biotechnology onto the world stage? This potential of an East–West recombinant innovation in genomics will be the focus of a future column.

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