The $100 Trillion Opportunity

We make the case that the twin catastrophes of climate change and a crippled health care system shouldn’t be viewed as a threat to the economy, as an economic suppressor — but rather a historic opportunity for reinvention and economic gain.

Roughly, $35 billion is raised by venture capital funds annually, around the globe. Another $55 billion of private equity gets invested into growth opportunities. The promise of that annual $90 billion is to triple their money within ten years.

To most people, that ten year, $270 billion prize sounds like an enormous amount. But I’d argue it’s vastly underestimating the opportunity in front of us.

I think of R&D as an industry’s “mutation rate.” The same way any organism uses epigenetic (environmental) signaling to increase its mutation rate under survival stress, industries and economies invest in R&D to make sure they’re still going to be operating when the world changes rapidly around them. Some firms buy their innovation through acquisitions of startups that have opened a new market. While not native to the DNA of a company, this acquisition or in-house innovation can be transformative, like a virus that takes a host in a new direction.

If you look at the global R&D spend, across both industry and investment markets, you don’t necessarily see the recognition and awareness of just how much the world is changing. Only the healthcare sector and the software/internet sector show rapid increases of their mutation rate in the last five years. The auto industry’s R&D is slowly climbing, but not at the pace you’d imagine for an industry that’s about to suffer the disruptive shock of autonomous and electric vehicles. The mutation rate in computing/electronics is actually going down; it’s also going down in chemicals, energy, telecom and aerospace. In consumer products, the mutation rate is flat. This suggests that only in two sectors is there enough awareness of both how quickly the world is changing, and the size of the opportunity created by those changes.

At IndieBio, we work with people and companies in most of these industries, and we know they are preaching the importance of investment into innovation. Some companies are investing much more heavily than others. Nevertheless, the statistics don’t lie; low overall mutation rates across so many industries hints that these pioneers aren’t necessarily being heard.

Maybe this article will help.

I’d like to show you our worldview at IndieBio — the really big picture — and then focus on the role of just one technological diaspora, biotech.

At IndieBio, we often talk about the “$100 Trillion Opportunity.” It’s a tautology, both obvious and not-obvious at once. Considering that the entire GNP of China today is $24 trillion, a hundred trillion can sound preposterously abstract. An exaggeration. Perhaps something an evil villain in a movie demands as a ransom for the planet itself.

But consider for a moment. The world’s economy doubles around every 25 years. It doubled between 1971 and 1994, in constant dollars, and then it doubled again between 1994 and 2018. Today, the global economy is about $100 trillion. That means in front of us lies another $100 trillion in growth, to be captured over just the next quarter century. The growth opportunity, in the next 25 years, is double what it was in the last 25 years.

We modeled what this $200 trillion global economy will look like in 2043, by industry.

It’s pretty interesting just to stare at. First, most of the numbers are in the thousands of billions — in trillions. That alone kind of opens the mind.

Then this is where biotech comes in. You’ll notice that “biotech” is not a bar on the chart. (We’re saving that.) Along with the industry sector sizes, we also projected what this growth would mean for the annual demand of natural resources.

If we keep scaling up the current technologies we use, the impact on planetary resources would be devastating.

  • As we add another 2 billion people to the population, coal extraction and burning would spike from 7.4 billion tons a year to 12.3 billion tons by 2043.
  • The meat we rear and slaughter would at least double, from from 325 million tons to 650 million.
  • We pull a trillion fish out of the oceans every year — and have hit the upper limit — so aquaculture is going to have to at least double, from 106 million tons to more like 250 million tons by 2043.
  • Plastics production, at current growth rates, would skyrocket from 7.8 billion tons to 18.6 billion tons.
  • The number of cars and light vehicles manufactured every year would surge from 98 million a year to 130 million.
  • Sawn wood, at 500 million cubic meters a year today, would increase to 650 million cubic meters — while wood paneling is on track to increase 150%.
  • Oil extraction would jump from 5 billion tons of oil to 7 billion.

We’re either headed down the path of ruinous consumption, or we’ll learn to reinvent production.

Human health is at a similar crossroads. The number of people who have cancer is growing twice as fast as population growth. Over the next 25 years, that means the cancer population will increase by at least 43 million. Obesity is climbing 1% a year and is the number one cause of poor human health. Globally, 31% of the people who die every year are victims of cardiovascular disease. Imagine that rising to 50%.

Despite stunning (and truly incredible) new advancements in disease treatment, we’re not making much dent in the underlying root causes of poor health. And the cost of these treatments (driven ever upward by the price and pace of regulatory approval) only makes the total healthcare expenditure a greater and greater economic burden.

But where most see crisis, I see opportunity. With that next $100 trillion in economic growth to gain, we have the opportunity, now, to invest in solutions that sustainably feed, clothe, house and keep healthy the growing world population.

At IndieBio, we believe that biology is the technology that unlocks this $100 trillion opportunity, solving both planetary health and human health. IndieBio, based in San Francisco, is the world’s leading synthetic biology accelerator. We graduate 30 startup companies a year, all with massive potential to disrupt industries. To co-create those 30 companies, we evaluate many hundreds of applicants, all working on diverse applications of synthetic biology around the world. We literally see the future coming.

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Capital markets have long underestimated biotech because of the inaccurate belief that biotech is a mere subset of the pharmaceutical industry. But pharma alone, and it’s 6% growth rate, does not explain why synthetic biology is growing at 28% year on year. Synthetic biology is not a subset of pharma; rather, pharma is just one of many industries that synthetic biology is reinventing.

Virtually everywhere that chemicals and minerals have been used, biology can do it better.

That started in pharma, where large molecule, biologic proteins displaced small molecule, chemically-derived therapies. Riding this revolution, the pharma industry will grow from $2 trillion today to $8.5 trillion by 2043.

Now this same displacement has started in other industries, and whoever has the best biology will win. Proteins are machines, on a molecular scale, that can be designed to serve almost any specific function. They also can be patented, like any machine. Because of this, and because they are the most critical ingredient, this gives biotech innovations enormous leverage to disrupt a market.

Market by market, we can envision the potential of biotech to reinvent so many industries, especially as the environmental externalities collide with current production economics.

We are the carbon planet. All life forms are made from carbon because carbon is an extremely versatile element; it bonds to every other element, and the bonds are stable and store energy really well. Of the 70 million compounds known to chemists, 80% are carbon-based. It’s the King of the Elements. Humans are 18% carbon; soil is 4 to 8% carbon; sugar is 36% carbon; trees are 50% carbon by dry weight. But coal is 87% carbon, and oil is 85% carbon. That’s why, when we wanted energy or we wanted to make things, it was easiest to pull coal and oil out of the earth. We learned to make almost everything from this extracted carbon — bridges, clothes, floor coverings, paint, toys, motors. You name it. That progress started 4,000 years ago, when humans mixed a little carbon into iron and created steel. Over the last hundred years, we got a lot better at making things from extracted carbon. Now we need to do all that over again, almost starting from scratch and doing it more sustainably — replicating the work of the last 100 years in the next 25.

In his book The 5th Beginning, University of Wyoming archeologist Bob Kelly divides the history of humankind into eras. The first beginning was when humans invented tools, three million years ago; the second beginning was the creation of language and culture; the third at the dawn of agriculture and sedentary communities; the fourth resulted from the creation of the state, or governments. Kelly dates the 5th beginning as around year 1500, but his description rings ominously of today: from that time period on, humankind has had the ability that no forebears did — to change the world itself, to destroy it or possibly recreate it. From 1500 to the last century, our impact on the world wasn’t something we were conscious of. But today it’s unmissable.

Since the early 1990s, when we first invented protein engineering and the mechanisms to edit the genome, we’ve been increasingly capable of altering life’s instruction code — not just in our own bodies, but truly, in all life forms on the planet. The biomass of the planet is estimated at 550 billion cubic tons. Annual production is 100 billion tons. Humans make up only 1/10,000th of the world’s biomass. Plants make up 80%. All the animals in the world, together, are only 1/40th the biomass of bacteria. And there are 8.7 million species of animal on earth, with 10,000 new species discovered every year. There are 950,000 species of insects. 400,000 species of plants. And 5 million species of fungi, which is a lot, but nothing compared to the estimated one trillion species of bacteria. Every single species, of every class, represents a slightly unique solution to surviving in its habitat. A solution to learn from, put to work, or improve upon.

Quite literally, all of this biomass, in its awe-inspiring variety, is now subject to human design. We can study its instruction code, mimic it, transplant it elsewhere, or edit it directly. Our planetary impact is so great that we humans decide, intentionally or blindly, which species thrive and which go extinct.

And the ways to approach this engineering are nearly limitless. DNA may be the master instruction code, but organisms also have hundreds of thousands of signaling systems that activate or suppress a pathway. Every step of a pathway — every signaling system — is a potential target.

Scientists today can go online and order any one of 250,000 antibodies from a biological products distributor. There’s a protein on the shelf for every known receptor — choose among 350,000 proteins, ready to ship. If a scientist is interested in a particular gene, they can look up any one of 20,000 genes and select products that act on its pathways. Science today is less about conducting the experiment and more about designing biology, purposely. One of our IndieBio companies, SyntheX, created a system to test 10 billion protein variants, simultaneously, in a single petri dish to hunt cures for cancer. Or if a scientist wants to use machine learning to find hidden patterns in biological data, they don’t have to write that code; they can just download any one of thousands of programs on Github that’s already been employed.

To those who haven’t been near a science bench since ninth grade biology class, a lot has changed. What took many years and hundreds of millions of dollars to do, 20 years ago, now takes a few hours and hundreds of dollars.

Everything from apparel to packaging to plastics — $6 trillion in markets between them — are gradually shifting from chemically-based processes to more sustainable, biological processes. A titanic race is underway, to remake every molecular form of plastic, rubber, vinyl, and compound. Fossil-fuel oil is being replaced as the source material with other sources of carbon: sugar, corn, biomass, burned municipal waste, methane, or direct CO2 exhaust. Biotech is then used to synthesize the biomaterial, and in some cases, enhance it — such as how enzymes treat fibers to keep apparel from fraying or to soften leathers. Then biotech also determines the post-use sustainability, whether the goal is to make the plastic recyclable more than just a few times, or whether the goal is to make the plastic degrade faster, and more completely — be that in a recovery center or in a compost pile. At every step, engineered bacteria are involved, and every year, companies one-up each other with their method, making the materials cheaper and better. Some materials are still awaiting a cost-competitive, new solution — but the prize is huge.

We don’t know who will win, but we know the winners will be those with the best biology.

The $140 billion laundry detergent industry has already been disrupted by biotech, which engineered enzymes to more sustainably clean clothes than chemical detergents. The $600 billion cosmetics industry, the $100 billion hair care industry, and the $40 billion fragrance industry are all on a similar path, reinventing body products to actually live up to the claims those industries long made. And the oil & gas industry already uses gas fermentation bioreactors and bacteria to synthesize both jet fuel and ethanol. Virtually all jet planes and cars today are running on a hybrid fuel made possible by biotech.

Zymergen and Gingko Bioworks have both raised hundreds of millions of dollars from venture capitalists to systematically enable biology to make these products more efficiently. The engineering of biochemical pathways is becoming a field attracting top young talent eager to solve these planetary problems with biology.

The Navy’s 2016 test in Maryland of a 100% alternative biofuel that uses 
the catalytic hydrothermolysis process on waste vegetable oils.

So how else does biotech change the world?

The materials used by the construction industry are not escaping this transformation. New concrete manufacturing biochemistry methods can reduce CO2 emissions by 70%. “Smart concrete” isn’t wired with electronic sensors; rather, tiny pockets of spores are embedded. They remain dormant until a crack emerges. Oxygen activates the spores, which patch the concrete with calcite. We don’t know if the buildings of the future will be made with concrete, or with wood, or with steel — but we know they’ll all be made better with biotech. The exhaust from steel mills is increasingly captured for the bioplastics industry, potentially making steel drastically more sustainable. Cross-laminated timber beams glued with new bioresins are lighter and stronger than steel, and going into more buildings. Society could decide that the best way to preserve the boreal forests is to turn them into a sustainable bioeconomy that’s as taken care of any factory. Meanwhile, exterior building surfaces with embedded hydrogels help buildings stay cool the same way plants and animals do, absorbing heat then evaporating it with water.

Lingrove’s EKOA, moldable to any shape, replaces hardwoods.

The $8 trillion food and agriculture industry is already looking at a projected 6% decline in crop yields, over the next dozen years, due to more arid conditions caused by global warming. Non-GMO biotech solutions improve the bacteria around a plant seed, giving crops the ability to self-fertilize and survive with far less water. Pollination, despite declining bee populations, is solved by companies like Beeflow, which make bees smarter and stronger. Fertilizer runoff — currently causing hypoxic dead zones at river mouths around the world — has a number of solutions, both on the farm and is solved by large scale facilities that use special bacteria that convert nitrogen to unreactive and harmless dinitrogen gas. Bacteriophages are now used to clean food processing factories, reducing chemicals and water washdowns. PivotBio is a company that has raised over $100 million dollars to improve nitrogen fixation in soil through the microbiome of plant roots. This not only improves crop yields but helps keep the soil from becoming fallow.

Meanwhile, as consumers turned away from packaged foods with additives and preservatives in them, food scientists reinvented food safety with enzymes that controlled gas reactions inside the packaging. Sugar is a huge factory in obesity — all the new artificial sweeteners are derived by synthetic biology, mimicking a natural compound. Probiotics will also continue to drive growth in the food industry, and expect that every few years, the ability to tune our microbiome to improve our health will make meaningful leaps forward.

New Age Meats’ pork sausage, made without the pig.

Global demand for meat and fish can’t be met with current technology. Cell-based meat, from companies like Memphis Meats, Finless Foods, and New Age Meats, grow protein in bioreactors, without the animal. Meat analogues are also growing at 16% annually. Then, the entire poultry and fish food chain is about to be disrupted by new feed ingredients. Rather than grinding up little ocean fish to make feed from, biotech is unleashing a variety of approaches that create full amino-acid proteins and Omega-3s for the feed. These ingenious techniques use the workhorses at the bottom of the food chain — bacteria and cyanobacteria (algae), which feed on everything from food waste to gasses like methane and CO2 waste, piped right from factory smokestacks. Once these new feed ingredients hit the commodity markets, they’ll take enormous pressure off our ocean ecosystems.

The carbon cycle is the Earth’s thermostat. Over geological time, rain etches carbon from rocks and soil; when it hits the oceans, the carbon momentarily becomes the skeletons and shells of marine life, before sinking to the ocean floor and becoming limestone. Volcanoes that form at the collision of tectonic plates return carbon to the atmosphere. That’s how it worked for tens of millions of years, until we came along and spread over the planet.

Now, every year, human utilization of fossil fuels put 200 times more carbon into the atmosphere than volcanoes do.

Thus we’re unlikely to meet global atmosphere goals just by reducing global greenhouse gas production and adopting solar. We also have to invent a whole new class of atmospheric engineering technologies to scrub CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide from the atmosphere, and to stop plastics from poisoning ocean life. Atmospheric engineering is essentially an outgrowth of the $1.5 trillion waste management industry.

So, when we look at that $100 trillion opportunity ahead, biotech is pervasive. It’s not a bar on the 2043 chart because it’s everywhere and growing.

Few industry sectors are not going become dependent on biotech’s creations. In the last ten years, every corporation needed to hire data scientists. In the next ten years, way more corporations will find themselves hiring life scientists, and you’ll see Chief Science Officers in far more companies’ C-suites. Deal flow will hinge on scientific judgement. No merger or acquisition will be sealed unless the CSO signs off on it. Banks are going to have to hire way more scientists, just to do due diligence on target companies. Consulting firms will need as many post-docs as they do MBAs, because they won’t be able to offer strategic counsel to industry unless they can understand the R&D portfolio of a firm.

At IndieBio, we have a handful of companies in every one of these sectors discussed here. We even have a few companies that use biology to create a future for the $3 trillion computing industry. One looming problem for IT is data storage. Every day the world creates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data to store. Every minute, there are 156 million emails sent. Interestingly, computers are one of the few things we don’t make with carbon. But if you think about it, nature created a way to store data, perfectly, uncorrupted, in a form that will last thousands of years: DNA. DNA is many orders of magnitude better at storing data than current computers. One of our graduates, Catalog, can replace an entire server room with a device that fits in the palm of your hand — using millionths of less space. Remember when we thought DVDs stored a lot of data?

In 25 years, we’ll look back and laugh at a lot of technologies, much the way we think quaintly of DVDs today. But it’s not just certain products that will go extinct. It’s entire companies, and entire industries.

Biotech as a whole — forced into a radical acceleration by the twin catastrophes of human and planetary health — represents nothing less than a potential “economic extinction” event. Companies that adapt will be selected for their fitness, and will take a bigger share of the next $100 trillion. Industries which do not mutate will be wiped out. It won’t be slow from here on; that phase has already passed. It will be sudden.

In the next article in this series, I’ll talk about the role of design in bringing this $100 trillion opportunity into reality. Design is a sort of taboo word in life science; it’s controversial. As a society, we commonly think of “discovering” science rather than purposefully designing it. But good design — at every level, from the molecular level at the smallest, to the international economic system at the largest — is exactly what’s needed.

Biology is the technology that unlocks the $100 trillion opportunity. But we need to do more, systematically, to harness the power of biology. The design of that system is our next topic.

Read more:
Designing Science (article 2 in series)
Accelerating Planetary Health (article 3 in series)
Executive Summary of Series