Out of the Blue and into the Black: The Pursuit of Innovation and a visit to the DSM Biotechnology Center : Biofuels Digest


I want to find, perhaps define
I’ve been a miner for a strain untold
For gene expressions, collaborative
three-fold better than the one of old, and I’m getting bold
three-fold better than the one of old, and I’m getting bold

(Not Neil Young, Not “Heart of Gold”)

Just a few years ago, one might spend $300 million, 10 years, and the work of 100 or more scientists to redesign a metabolic pathway, engineer that into a molecule and industrialize it, and measure that progress in dozens of scientific papers and patents written in a curious mishmash of jargon and hieroglyphics that only a handful could understand in the entirety.

Industrial biotechnology was powerful, but it was slow, and expensive. Almost no one could do it. The plausible targets were few in number, and they were huge. Renewable energy, for one. Classic foods, for another. A couple of renewable chemicals such as propanediol. Breakthroughs arrived like men on the moon, stunning to see, and then everyone went back to the day job.

But then, a Moore’s Law environment in genetics arrived. And, rampant advances in robotics, mobility, bandwidth, computational speed, and data storage. More and more targets have become available to more players. When you talk to individual scientists, it’s as if they think they might re-invent the entire physical world.

Meat without the cow, milk without the cow, leather without the cow, yoga pants without the petroleum, tractors without drivers, plats that serve as housting tiles, drones aoove our fields, fuels made from algae, and every vitamin under the sun.

It may be cool news on Facebook when Impossible Foods reaches 2,000 outlets with the Impossible Burger (“Made from Plants!”), but consider the stress that advanced nutrition is wreaking upon old-line food companies. It’s not Boom Times for the Old Ideas. Amazon bought Whole Foods recently and the executives at Safeway Stores aren’t exactly sitting around polishing their golf clubs. They’re worried, they’re responding. Cars, planes, clothing, zippers, building materials, foods, containers, fuels, therapeutics. The industrial landscape is erupting.

Now, change is leaking beyond the science of biotechnology and into the science of science. Innovation is being subjected to innovation.

It’s the breadth of targets and the range of skills required. Few have the end-to-end capability and even those few don’t have the bandwidth. Today, we know that something else is required, and sometimes we call it Open Innovation and we are supposed to like it. Possibly someone way up high in your organization is telling you:

You’d Better Like it. You’re Going to See a Lot More of It.

Only a handful of companies are pioneering along this route, and they are marching as gingerly as Everest-bound mountaineers navigating the Khumbu Icefalls, praying to avoid the death-plunge that comes from taking the wrong step into the wrong crevasse.

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