Ashu Singhal discusses biotech and tech innovation in 2023
Right now, biotech is at the same inflection point reached by software in the ‘90s – when companies such as Intel and Microsoft began to enter the mainstream. Over the past few years, the core scientific tools needed to make discoveries in this field have become orders of magnitude cheaper and easier to use, and as a result, innovation is taking place at a breakneck pace. To understand this, look no further than the mRNA technology that has helped vaccinate billions of people worldwide against COVID-19. In the past, going from the discovery of a virus to an approved vaccine could take a decade. Now, the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved and accessible to people within a year.
But to continue this momentum and to realise the impact biotech can have on society, an even deeper intersection of technology and biotech is going to be critical. We achieve real scalability with science when tech and biotech work together to build the modern infrastructure needed for modern science. Over the next years, we’ll see the connection between these industries strengthen, ultimately helping to get the science of today – and tomorrow – into the hands of those who need it, faster. Here, we share a few areas of progress for the year ahead.
Tech workers will move from big tech to biotech
In recent months, over 120,000 workers have left the tech sector and are on the hunt for the next career opportunity – one that offers greater purpose and impact.
Biotech is at the cutting edge of how the world will operate in the future, and for technologists it offers the most interesting data and software challenges of the day. Now, tech employees are waking up to this, and taking the opportunity to work on groundbreaking innovations with potential for real-world impact, whether that’s curing diseases, combating climate change, or eliminating hunger, all of which is being unlocked through biotech.
Technologists have already made valuable contributions in the industry, from getting COVID vaccines to market faster to making unprecedented advancements in predictive AI. And we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of technology’s potential in making complex systems simple, accessible, and scalable. Tech workers have spent decades digitally transforming industries with a cloud-first and data-driven approach, and now, they’re applying these learnings and revolutionising the R&D lab.
As biotech continues to be a driving force for the future, tech workers are providing the skills the industry needs to continue on this path today. Biotech will maximise on this moment, accelerating the hiring of data scientists, ML experts and software engineers.
AI is changing the biotech sector for the better
The biotech industry is beginning to realise the benefits that AI can have in transforming R&D. We’re already seeing real progress being made with AI-focused drug discovery. Companies such as Relay Therapeutics and Recursion are reaching huge milestones with clinical trial successes, and these achievements have driven more investment into the space. In November, Sanofi signed a US$21.5 million deal with Insilico Medicine to use its AI platform, Pharma.AI, for drug discovery, while BioNTech has recently purchased British AI start-up, InstaDeep, for £562m.
Although the scientific community has previously championed lone discovery or collaboration around a single molecule, AI is shaking this up and creating a more collaborative biotech sector. Now, labs are increasingly partnering to work on massive data sets, helping to accelerate the path to discovery and breakthrough.
AI in biotech will also be a driving force behind the hiring of new talent in the field of data science and AI and ML, helping to improve data standardisation and create a stronger digital data backbone across the industry. These changes will not only benefit the application of AI and ML in biotech but also improve scalability and efficiency in R&D overall.
Biomanufacturing, and not just biotech research, becomes a big focus for innovation
Due to shortcomings in biomanufacturing today, many patients are missing out on access to everything from common treatments for the flu to more complex cures for diseases such as cancer. For example, the average waiting time for patients suffering with multiple myeloma to receive CAR-T therapy is seven months, at which point the disease can reach a critical point where the treatment is no longer effective. The current limitations in biomanufacturing play a role in this challenge. Currently, there aren’t enough CAR-T manufacturing facilities, and the process of manufacturing these bespoke treatments, which rely on patients’ unique cells, is timely and cumbersome due to often being carried out manually. Data at manufacturing sites is captured entirely by pen and paper, both increasing the potential for error and slowing the process down.
If biomanufacturing facilities had the tools to input data digitally and easily share information across all the stakeholders in the manufacturing process, like the hospital, shippers, and drugmakers, CAR-T cells could be made an estimated 40% faster. Leading biotech players are already realising the benefits of this – Ori Biotech focuses on the industrialisation of precision medicine such as CAR-T, creating a fully digital platform that connects R&D to manufacturing.
Ashu Singhal is co-founder and president of Benchling