The Practical Futurist: Will Biotech Boom?

It's a matter of faith in some circles that biotechnology is the next computer revolution: that it will change the world, spawn new industries and create megamillionaires. In fact it will likely do all those--but probably in a very different fashion, and far more slowly, than the giddy financial roller coaster of the computer and Internet booms. A new magazine called Acumen Journal of Sciences, dedicated to the business of biotech, gives an early hint of the vast differences.

Acumen, whose second issue is now on sale, follows in the footsteps of such high-flying but now defunct magazines as The Red Herring and Upside. During the heyday of the computer and Internet boom, both magazines tirelessly chronicled the ups and downs of start-up technology firms and the oracular pronouncements of venture capitalists and industry analysts. The Red Herring, in particular, became a cash cow: everyone chasing start-up dollars, from accounting and PR firms to investment banks and executive recruiters, bought ads each month to show the flag. The June 2000 issue, at 650 pages, weighed almost 3 1/2 pounds--and nearly half its pages were ads.

Both Upside and The Red Herring are history, but the latter's longtime editor, Jason Pontin, along with a handful of other Herring survivors, is behind Acumen, an effort to provide the same survey of the business of biotechnology. But the Acumen business model is fundamentally different than the flamboyant Red Herring. Acumen is a tidy 7x10 perfect-bound magazine, with a somber cover that looks like a science journal, accented by just a flash of witty color.

Acumen's founders clearly don't expect a replay of the advertising bonanza that fueled the Herring and Upside. Ad pages are few, primarily the old standbys--consulting, software and financial firms. But the paucity of ads should not prove fatal, since the founders will rely on readers for support: charter subscriptions cost a lofty $100 for eight issues (and that's a discount from the normal $200 tag). And it will be an exclusive readership: while the Herring boasted a 350,000 circulation in its heyday, Acumen is aiming at a tenth of that in its first year.

If Pontin and company can maintain the editorial level of the first two issues, Acumen will be worth the investment. There isn't currently any other magazine that provides such a comprehensive view of the complex, interlocking issues that will shape the biotechnology industry, as well as business analysis informed by good understanding of the science. The range of articles is broad: Sherwin Nuland (the Yale clinical professor who wrote the fascinating book "How We Die") contributes a thoughtful piece on just how long humans should live, given the current work on life extension (which is also discussed scientifically elsewhere in the issue).

Nuland explains a notion called "compression of morbidity"--that a goal of life extension work should be that most of one's life is enjoyed in good health, and the inevitable decline to death is compressed into the very last portion. Elsewhere in the issue is a thoughtful piece on the current state of the Food and Drug Administration--and thus Acumen's content points to the two aspects of biotech that will prevent the business from becoming another Internet boom: regulation and ethics.

Biotechnology has a significant layer of regulation--the FDA--over drugs, medical hardware and food that doesn't exist in the computer world. Even if the FDA drug approval processes are significantly streamlined, they still impose high costs and uncertainty on pharmaceutical development. And even after approval, biotechnology's products are primarily sold to health professionals--doctors and hospitals--who are far more complex customers than the consumers and IT professionals who buy computers and software. These business hurdles simply put biotech investment into a higher perceived risk category than, ironically enough, a fresh new Internet startup back in February of 2000.

The second impediment to get-rich-quick schemes is bioethics--increasing public and legal scrutiny of just whether any given biotechnology product or process is either moral or a wise step for the human species. As Nuland writes in his piece on why life extension efforts should have limits: "Aging is not a disease. It is the condition upon which we have been given life." Nobody ever raised issues like that when the first spreadsheet was written for personal computers.

If there is a place in biotechnology where quick payoffs could happen, it might be in personal diagnostics--test kits or devices that consumers can use at home to monitor their own health, such as today's pregnancy test kits or glucose meters for diabetics. Such kits face less of a regulatory hurdle at the FDA, and moreover meet the public appetite for taking control of one's medical care, as seen in the enormous traffic that Internet health sites attract.

Given current work on "smart sensors"--semiconductors that can directly measure chemical balances--as well as the falling prices of chips that function as DNA probes, home diagnostics could someday become far more sophisticated. Imagine, a few years out, a home device that, given a bit of blood or saliva, could read out a whole range of your physical parameters. The machine might also be connected to the Internet, where your data would be analyzed by sophisticated software against a database of your previous measurements, reporting changes and suggesting either lifestyle changes or a medical checkup.

But that's still well in the future. For now, the nascent biotechnology industry has a thicket of issues to work through that make the early days of the computer revolution look like free play time on a playground. Pontin's Acumen is a worthy way to track that process--and the success of the publication may well prove to be a handy diagnostic for the health of the biotechnology industry itself.

Are you comfortable with the balance between entrepreneurial capitalism and government regulation that currently controls the progress of biotechnology and genetic engineering? Tell the Practical Futurist:

The Practical Futurist: Will Biotech Boom? | News