Space race 2.0

The world’s two most powerful nations are about to go head to head over the most important technology of the 21st century. The next year could tell us who’s most likely to win. At stake is more than just national pride: the fate of millions of people and trillions of dollars is on the line.

How so?

Well, history shows us that some of the most important inventions come when two global superpowers go head to head in pushing the limits of technology. Technology that could have taken decades to develop is pushed on at a much faster rate.

It’s easy to understand why. There’s nothing like the fear of coming second to accelerate progress and innovation. For us as investors, that can be a real benefit: accelerated innovation can lead to accelerated wealth creation.

Think the US and Russia facing off in the Space Race. It’s worth remembering that when JFK decided to send a man to the moon… the technology to do so just didn’t exist. It wasn’t even close. That was in 1961. Eight years later Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Those eight years saw a giant leap in the world’s technical capabilities. And they led to all manner of “spin out” inventions: satellites, solar panels, lithium batteries, GPS and laptops all came about as a result of the Space Race.

That’s actually often true of conflict. The Second World War gave us radar, radio, penicillin and the world’s first computers. Conflict accelerates innovation.

I think we’re at the start of another period of competing invention – a second Space Race. This time it is China and the US racing to develop and commercialise CRISPR.

If you’re unfamiliar with what CRISPR is, it’s the technology that enables us to edit and alter DNA. It could well be the most important technology of our lifetimes. It has implications for everything from treating cancer and other diseases, eradicating the genetic malfunctions that lead to disease, to creating efficient biofuels and increasing crop yields. The potential is virtually limitless.

It was only patented in 2013 (there’s a whole backstory to that, which I’ll go into another time). But in the short time since then, there’s been an explosion of research into what we can achieve using it. The first gene editing firms have started to come to market, too, with three IPOs in the last 12 months.

Given the potential, you’d expect competition. But last week we got a glimpse of how that competition extends to the highest level: not just different companies vying for supremacy, but entire nations.

A Chinese research team at Sichuan University became the first group to inject a person with cells edited using CRISPR. The goal is to treat an aggressive form of lung cancer. It was a major development. And one that is particular relevant given its location. CRISPR was developed and patented in the US. For China to reach such a key milestone first may well have put the US on the back foot.

As Carl June, a specialist at University of Pennsylvania, put it: “I think this is going to trigger ‘Sputnik 2.0’, a biomedical duel on progress between China and the United States, which is important since competition usually improves the end product.”

I expect American research to accelerate in response. In fact both Chinese and American research projects using CRISPR on human patients are due to begin before the end of March 2017. Not every use of gene editing will be successful. But make no mistake, the race to control and commercialise the single most important technology of the 21st century is under way.

As capital and expertise is drawn to the industry, you can expect major opportunities to open up. The gene editing industry is tiny by comparison to biotechnology and pharmaceutical as a whole (it’s worth roughly $2 billion, compared to annual revenues of $1 trillion worldwide in the pharmaceutical industry). To me that means one thing: opportunity.

To me it’s imperative you understand what this technology is, how it’s being used and what that could mean for you. Look back at history – there are countless examples of times when a technology emerged that radically disrupted the status quo, creating real wealth as it did so.

Look at the last 30 years: things like the internet, biotechnology, smartphones and hydraulic fracturing all exploded onto the scene in a disruptive and lucrative way. How many more tech breakthroughs are going to pass you by before you get out ahead of the curve and position yourself early?

I think gene editing is going to be another one of those key technologies. Which is why I spent a year and a half researching it, meeting with and speaking to the people who’re actually trying to commercialise the technology. In fact, exactly a week before that announcement from China, I was touring a US laboratory developing another use for CRISPR. I’ll tell you about that another time.

But if you do want to truly understand what genetic engineering means for you, your family and your money – and I think you do – you should read my new book, The Exponentialist. It’s well worth your time to educate yourself about this stuff. Just follow this link to get the full story (I’ll even send you a free hardback copy).

Genetic engineering: a warning to Donald Trump

To underline just how significant advances in gene editing are, on both a commercial and national level, you need only look at a letter Donald Trump received last week from his council of advisors on science and technology.

The letter alerted the president-elect to the potential of gene editing technology… and warned of its potential misuses. That’s a reasonable position to take. If used carefully, the potential uses of gene editing are limitless. But technology this powerful has equally destructive potential. In a sense, gene engineering is to biology what splitting the atom was to physics: equally beneficial and destructive, depending on its use.

You can read the entire letter here. But the key section, to me, was this (emphasis added mine):

More broadly, biotechnologists are increasingly adopting an “engineering mindset”—thinking in terms of developing collections of modular parts that can be reliably assembled into working biological circuits that carry out desired behaviors. More powerful and efficient methods for genetic engineering are increasingly a part of routine practice across the biotechnology enterprise.

At the same time, basic, biomedical, and agricultural scientists are learning much about natural biological circuits—including how pathogens hijack such circuits to cause disease in their hosts and how these circuits may be perturbed to treat diseases.

The developments described above, and many others, hold great promise for medicine and agriculture in the coming decades. As is often the case with technology, they also harbor the potential for misuse.

No one knows exactly how gene editing will ultimately be used best. It may be to massively increase crop yields in order to feed a growing population. It may be to eradicate the “mistakes” in our genetic code, the ones that increase our chances of developing a terrible illness. It could be to cure certain diseases altogether and massively increase the number of “good” years of life the average person can expect.

It could be a hundred other things we haven’t yet dreamed up. But it’s clear that at the highest levels people are racing to understand the technology, develop and control the way it is used and to commercialise it.

It may not put a man on the moon, but what we achieve in rewriting the rules of life could make that look trivial in comparison.

Until next time,

Nick O’Connor
Associate Publisher, Capital & Conflict

Category: Investing in Technology

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