It seems to me that the best way to gauge the development of a technology is to watch how its users change over time.
At the beginning, there are the inventors and enthusiasts. These are the people who spend their weekends working with half-baked prototypes and attending sparsely populated meetups. If you were to attend one of these meetings it would probably seem less than promising.
Despite these rough-edges, this is how some of the biggest industries have been started. Jobs and Wozniak attended the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park to hawk early versions of the Apple I. Elon Musk discovered Tom Mueller building rockets in a garage before inviting him to join a little company called Space Exploration Technologies.
Clusters of passionate people tend to form around promising technologies. For these people, their entire attention is dedicated to the technology. They argue over nuances that seem inconsequential, and devour new information as soon as it becomes available. In absolute numbers, it may only be one or two people in a thousand. Yet, their attention is so narrowly focused that their contributions often have outsized impacts. These people are like magnifying glasses, taking in broad and diffuse knowledge and outputting a focused beam that can start fires.
Chris Dixon believes that “what the smartest people do on the weekend is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years.” There is a corollary to that belief, which states that if you’re spending your week doing the same thing as everyone else, the smart people have moved on.
What does the other end of the spectrum look like? How do you know when a technology has reached peak saturation?
A television ad for a new toothbrush caught my attention recently. Halfway through the advertisement, the voice actor claimed that the new electric toothbrush would improve hygiene through “artificial intelligence” technology. Five years ago, if you had pulled aside a random sample of computer scientists and informed them that their life’s work was going to be prominently featured in a toothbrush commercial, they would have looked at you like you were crazy.
This is the other end of the spectrum.
The reason that I perked up at the toothbrush commercial was not because of the buzzword, but because it was the first time I had used the term used as such a blatant marketing tool. To be sure, the term “AI” is everywhere these days, but this was a sign that the field had become saturated. If the earliest sign for a technology’s potential is the attention of smart people, the signal that we’re nearing the end of the discovery phase is probably a toothbrush commercial.
I don’t mean to say that there isn’t opportunity for the technologies at this point; quite the opposite. Once companies get interested, money tends to flow in and drive big developments. But it means that the phase of the geeks is coming to an end. This is the part where colleges open departments and job titles get created (Chief AI Officer for Gingivitis, perhaps).
I kept this is mind as I dug into my analysis of the market opportunity for Synthetic Biology. I wanted to avoid the bland market analyses and forecasts. I wasn’t looking for the toothbrush ad, I was looking for the cluster of niche experts. I wanted to find the unglamorous, real uses that no one else was talking about.
During my search, I found myself drawn into the food industry. Above all else, I found myself learning about cheese.
So, today we’re going to talk about cheese. Specifically, we’re going to talk about the production of cheese and a little known group of enzymes called rennet.
Rennet is primarily made up of chymosin, an enzyme that breaks down proteins into smaller parts. This enzyme is important because it causes the chemical reaction that coagulates milk in the cheese-making process. Without it, milk would stay milk, and we wouldn’t have the variety of cheeses that have become a staple of millennial brunches.
Our relationship with cheese goes back thousands of years, with samples of the foodstuff found entombed in the graves of pharaohs. However, the accessibility and cost of cheese has decreased massively in recent decades, mostly thanks to the advancement of a new type of enzyme called Fermentation Produced Chymosin, or FPC.
Prior to FPC, we sourced the building blocks of rennet from the stomachs of adolescent cows and sheep, who naturally produce the enzyme to break down milk from their mothers. In the 1980’s, the growing animal rights movement and decreasing cost of genetic engineering techniques created an opportunity for companies to produce the enzymes necessary for cheesemaking. In the United States, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 that new life forms can be patented, opening the door to an industry dedicated to producing low-cost, high-quality rennet.
Today, rennet from FPC enzymes is used to produce 70% of cheeses made domestically, and that number is rising quickly. Cheeses made from FPC have longer shelf lives, are cheaper to produce, and are free from the ethical issues associated with large scale animal harvesting.
For cheesemakers, synthetic biology is an enabling technology that has dominated existing techniques for animal, plant, and microbial rennet production. It’s not sexy, and it probably won’t end up on the news. But the use of synthetic bio in the field has flourished, and many experts will find their skills in high demand in coming years.
Remember, for the biggest ideas, you can’t wait until it appears in a toothbrush commercial. The first users of new technology may seem strange, but it’s probably because they know they are onto something.
🧬 Synthetic Biology Reading
A research paper of the use of synthetic biology to generate plants optimized for life on other planets.
A PDF of the April, 2019 Economist issue titled: Reprogramming Life: The Promise of Synthetic Biology.
A wonderful overview of a research paper from Harvard on the use of techniques developed to tackle natural language problems being applied to protein synthesis.
An open letter from Aaron Sorkin (Director, The Social Network) to Mark Zuckerberg. Mark responds with a quote from a Sorkin film:
As he was preparing for an IPO that would make him a billionaire many times over, Mr. Neumann was surfing in the Maldives when executives in New York called to go over the all-important document that would be released to investors. Reluctant to cut his trip short, Mr. Neumann summoned a WeWork underling to the Maldives for an in-person briefing, according to people familiar with the episode.
Back in New York, Mr. Neumann spent much of the summer working on the document, known as an S-1, in the Hamptons, regularly helicoptering employees out from the city to help. His wife, Rebekah, WeWork’s chief brand officer, insisted it be printed on recycled paper, then rejected early printings as low-quality, according to people familiar with the matter. The process was set back by days and the printing shop originally hired for the job refused to work with the company. WeWork gave part of the job to a small New York paper company that rents space in one of its offices.
An annotated transcript of Zuckerberg’s submitted testimony before his hearing in front of Congress.
The idea behind Libra is that sending money should be as easy and secure as sending a text message.
“What I cannot create I do not understand.”
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