The World is About to Change—Again

Dr. Susan Hockfield, the first female President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written a beautiful and powerful book, “The Age of Living Machines,” articulating her vision of the merging of engineering and biology. This merger, she argues, has potential to lead to a scientific revolution that she believes will create the future. The ability to distill complicated concepts into concise, understandable prose, is a skill with limitless value, regardless of the subject matter. Dr. Hockfield is clearly a master in this art, and why should we be surprised that the past Provost of Yale and President of MIT would possess such skill and aplomb.

In her book, Dr. Hockfield, an accomplished biologist who was recruited early in her distinguished career by Nobel Laureate James Watson to the iconic Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, lays out the case for Convergence 2.0. This is, of course, the sequel to Convergence 1.0, the confluence of physics and engineering, which produced the electron and the information technology revolution, leading to breathtaking innovation that has altered virtually every aspect of human life.

 

 

Dr. Hockfield, brimming with optimism and hope, yet firmly grounded in scientific reality, tells us that the world is about to change again, arguing:

“Biology and engineering are converging in previously unimaginable ways, and this convergence could soon offer us solutions to some of our most significant and seemingly most intractable problems. We are about to enter an era of unprecedented innovation and prosperity, and the prospects for a better future could not be more exciting.”

Through the eyes and laboratories of five scientific geniuses, Dr. Hockfield gives the reader a glimpse into the potential to harness nature’s supremacy to build living machines. Virus-based batteries, protein-based water filters, nanoparticle-based cancer detection systems, brain-enabled prostheses, and computational-mediated selection of new crops illustrate the unlimited potential and possibilities associated with the merging of engineering and biology.

Much of this revolution is occurring at MIT and in Kendall Square, the epicenter of biotechnology. As the leader of Cambridge Science Corporation (CSC), I have the privilege to observe and participate in Convergence 2.0. I have the distinct pleasure to work in Lab Central, the world’s premier biotech-capable shared lab facility. As the CEO of Vivtex, CSC’s first investment, I have a “front row seat and uniform,” to one of the most fascinating developments in human history: The moment when man deciphers the code to how he is built. I couldn’t think of anything more enthralling or challenging. May you live in interesting times: Yes please and thank you.

Vivtex is commercializing transformative drug formulation and development technology developed at the world-famous Langer Lab in the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. Dr. Langer is a central figure in both Dr. Hockfield’s book and the story of Convergence 2.0.  She describes him as an “inspiring” figure, “regarded as the most prolific biological engineer in the world, with over a thousand granted or pending patents, and the founder of more than twenty-five companies.”

Vivtex is Dr. Langer’s latest company, dedicated to developing technologies designed to deliver complex molecules called antisense oligonucleotides, which will bind directly to RNA intercepting damaged code. None of this would have been possible 30 years ago, for the simple fact that nobody understood the implications of messenger RNA at that time. Sidney Altman and Thomas Cech had yet to win the Nobel Prize.

“The Age of Living Machines” left me feeling more positive than ever that man will find ways to fix manmade problems. Politicians talk of incurable diseases, drone on about doom and coming catastrophes caused by global warming. But when offered the chance to back the scientists who believe they can solve these problems with their unbridled courage and genius – sadly they fall short.

In the last chapter, Dr. Hockfield points out the declining federal funding for important research. After peaking in the 1960s at 2% of GDP, federal investment in research and development has been on a steady decline in both inflation adjusted and percentage of GDP terms. It now stands dangerously and disgracefully below 1%. America needs to rethink our funding models for Translational Research, if we are to continue to be the preeminent player, or risk being reduced to observer status as Convergence 2.0 changes the world – without us. The implications of the United States ceding its leading position in the commercialization of technology in the 21st century will be broad and deep, carrying significant consequences well beyond this generation.

Philanthropy is an important early funder of research and development, but with an annual spend of less than $2.5 billion, the impact from this constituency is limited. The key is for-profit funding, which raises significant legal and ethical issues, but ones that must be, and can be dealt with. True long-term permanent capital must come into the Translational Research zone. Dr. Hockfield references a plan proposed by Larry Fink, the chairman and CEO of the investment group Blackrock. In order to encourage capital to flow into Convergence 2.0 opportunities, the government should offer tax benefits that grow proportionally with the length of time of an investment. We must also rethink our immigration policies, which are currently on a trajectory to make it difficult for US based research institutions to employ the necessary scientific talent.

As my friend Eric Lander, the CEO of the Broad Institute says, “The world is changed by people who are doing things that are too ambitious.”

But these ambitious revolutionaries, like all who came before, need money if they are to succeed in their quest to solve some of the most challenging problems we face. It is our responsibility – our moral obligation – to provide them with the necessary resources, to save us from ourselves.

Douglas Eby

Douglas Eby

Douglas Eby is the inaugural Senior Fellow for the Innovative Funding Models Project at the Petrie-Flom Center. Doug’s role is to advance the work of the Project by developing a policy/research agenda, planning the convening of the working group, co-authoring a report on the working group's findings, and being available as a resource for interested members of the Harvard community.

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