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Y Combinator and biotech: The wave of the future?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Marcus Wohlsen's book "Biopunk" details the efforts of dedicated garage biotech enthusiasts. Startup incubators like Y-Combinator could help bring their efforts to fruition (Image: Steve Zazeski)

Y Combinator is the well-known startup incubator that picks promising computer technology startup ideas from a competition every year and seeds them with a few tens of thousands of dollars and dedicated space in Silicon Valley in return for an equity stake. It has been cited as one of the most successful startup accelerators around and has funded several successful companies like Scribd and Dropbox. I know something about how competitive and interesting their process is since my wife made it to the final round a few years ago.

Now they’re doing something new: planning to fund biotech startups. At first glance this might seem like a bad idea since biotech ventures are both riskier as well as much more expensive compared to IT startups; as well-known chemistry blogger Chemjobber rightly pointed out to me on Twitter, the net ROI for biotech has been negative. But I for one find this to be a very promising idea, and I think of Y Combinator’s move as very much of a futuristic, put-money-in-the-bank kind of thing.

As the president of the accelerator puts it:

“Six years ago, the starting costs for biotech firms would not work with our model: it took millions of dollars to get anywhere. But the landscape has changed. We’ve noticed, over the past year, more and more promising biotech firms asking about Y Combinator. I think there is a real trend for biotech start-ups looking more like software start-ups. In ten years it won’t even be unusual for a biotech firm to begin in the same way a software firm does, and we want to be on the leading edge of that trend.”

And I think he’s right. There have been two major developments in the last ten years that are very promising for the future of “garage biotech”: The first development is the staggering decline in the cost of DNA sequencing which has now even surpassed Moore’s Law, and the second development is the rise of DIY biotech, nicely imagined by one of my mentors Freeman Dyson a few years ago and described by Marcus Wohlsen in an entire book which documents the rise of amateur biotech enthusiasts around the world. Thanks to forward-thinking endeavors like Y Combinator, these enthusiasts might finally find an outlet for their creativity.

The fact is that both equipment and techniques for biotechnology have become massively cheap in the last few years, and it is no longer a pipe dream to imagine a biotech Steve Jobs or Bill Gates coming up with a revolutionary new biotechnology-based diagnostic method or therapeutic in their garage. We are entering an age where young people can actually play with genetic engineering, just like they played with software and hardware in the 1970s. The startup funds that Y Combinator plans to inject in its biotech ventures ($120,000) should be more than adequate for buying used equipment and kits off of eBay. For now they are also planning to focus on biotech research benefiting from software, which seems to be the right place to look for cheap(er) ideas. If I had to bet on specific ideas I would probably bet on diagnostic techniques since therapeutics are usually far more complicated and uncertain. I think they should also look at general tools which promise to make complex endeavors like drug discovery faster and easier; as biology has amply demonstrated, revolutions in science and technology are as much about tools as about ideas.

The legal framework as well as the ultimate market incarnation of a biotech diagnostic or therapeutic is of course much more complicated than for a new computer product, but that part kicks in after the idea has gotten off the ground. In fact endeavors such as the one Y Combinator is planning on funding may well accelerate not just the domestication of biotechnology but people’s thinking about important legal and social matters related to its widespread use. To enable true garage biotech we need not just a scientific revolution (which is very much visible) but a social, legal and intellectual property revolution (which is not). Each of them can feed off the other.

But for me the most exciting aspect of the announcement is simply the interest it will hopefully fuel in young people with novel biotech ideas. The computer revolution would never have occurred without thousands of young people starting hobbyist groups and tinkering around with electronics and software in their kitchens and garages, away from their parents’ prying eyes. Science and technology are very much Darwinian endeavors, so the more ideas that are available for inspection, rejection and growth, the better it will be for the future of a particular technological paradigm. As Linus Pauling said, “To have a good idea you must first have lots of ideas, then throw the bad ones away”. Encouraging people to have lots of ideas is precisely what Y Combinator is doing, so I wish them all good luck.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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