Illustration by Nick Vokey

Biotech Breakthroughs and Big Ideas in 2018

Scientists and entrepreneurs tell us what they’re looking for.

Innovations are looming in food, medicine, brain-machine interfaces, sex, sleep, and do-it-yourself biology. That’s the picture we got from asking several researchers and entrepreneurs what they’re looking forward to this year—and what they want people to understand about their work.


“We have now entered the era of being able to profile not just our genomes, but also proteomes, metabolomes, transcriptomes, and many other data modalities for individuals, which can now also be coupled with better methods for quantifying health and disease,” says Iya Khalil, co-founder of GNS Healthcare and Via Science.

“From this data, we are applying powerful machine-learning capabilities to learn the causal mechanisms driving our health, progression to disease, and response to treatment. The aim in 2018 is to apply this more broadly, so that we can accelerate the ability to better match treatments and interventions to patients, ensuring the right treatment gets to the right patient at the right time. (Here’s a recent study that predicted patients’ response to stem cell therapy.)”

She adds: “Algorithms and data will supercharge but not replace human intelligence in this new era of biology and medicine.”

“Consumers want to do more with their genetic data,” says Ronnie Andrews, CEO of Exploragen, a maker of DNA lifestyle apps.And this wave of interest in learning more about your uniqueness is fueling the rise in new DNA applications beyond medicine and health: trustworthy lifestyle products rooted in strong science. Consumers can anticipate interacting with their genetic data in new ways to help them improve their lives.”


“I wish more people understood that natural doesn’t equal better,” says John Cumbers, founder of SynBioBeta, a synthetic biology community. “There are many things that are natural that kill us, are bad for us. There are many advances that engineering has made that are not natural, but they are better. They make us healthier and make the world a better place to live.”

Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at UC Davis who has developed drought-resistant strains of rice: “One of the greatest challenges of our time is to feed the growing population without further destroying the environment. We need to use all appropriate technologies that help farmers produce food in a productive and ecologically based manner.

“Rather than focusing on how a seed variety was developed, we must ask what most enhances local food security and can provide safe, abundant, and nutritious food to consumers. We must ask if rural communities can thrive and if farmers can make a profit. We must be sure that consumers can afford the food. And finally, we must minimize environmental degradation. This includes conserving land and water, enhancing farm biodiversity and soil fertility, reducing erosion, and minimizing harmful inputs. Read more at cropgeneticsinnovation.org.”


“I think we will continue to see strong interest in the combination of wearables, wellness, and general neuro-health,” says Amy Kruse, chief scientific officer of the Platypus Institute, which is researching the neuroscience of human performance. “There are several new non-invasive interventions in the market, and those are picking up steam — electric stimulation, ultrasound. I also think sleep is on the upswing again, with some very interesting sleep masks coming out in 2018.”

Mary Lou Jepsen, founder of Openwater, which is making a wearable consumer device that can look into the body with the resolution of an MRI, says her company will show prototypes in 2018. She says it’s the result ofthe inevitability of the physics meeting manufacturing process improvements in the consumer electronics supply chain to democratize health diagnosis.” And in addition to cheaper and better MRIs, “it also will enable us to communicate with thought alone.”


Photo by Neal Preston

“Our understanding of sex from laboratory studies has been limited to models based on sex films and images. A few of us started using actual genital vibrators in the lab, which is an important step toward understanding how real sexual activity likely differs from just visual representations of it. We are now sitting on a huge amount of biological data from couples stimulating each other in the lab. This is the first data set of its kind. 2018 should bring advancements in our understanding of how connection develops between two people involved in intimate touch,” says Nicole Prause, founder of Liberos, a “sexual biotechnology” company.

“Most people falsely believe that sex is special. There is no ‘sex’ area of the brain. This means that, if you want to understand positive emotions, human motivation, learning, or reproduction, you cannot leave out sex. Sex has been relegated to the backrooms of universities and hidden from public health for too long because of the false perception that it cannot (or should not) be studied. Sex is an integral part of human existence that deserves the same attention and scientific rigor as any other field.”


“Truly meaningful personalized medicine will start to become the standard of care for some serious health problems such as cancer, thanks to incredibly exciting advances in therapeutic science and next-gen technology,” says Amy DuRoss, CEO of Vineti, a company working to scale personalized medicine. “The net effect is that long-term remission in cancer and cures for serious genetic disorders will become realities for many patients, thanks to our ability to make and deliver drugs that are ‘just for you,’ safely and at scale. Here’s some further reading on one type of breakthrough personalized medicine — CAR-T cell therapy.”

Roger Haenni, co-founder and CEO of Datum, explains why his company’s blockchain-based marketplace for health data has promise: “You create a lot of health-related data when you wear a Fitbit, but what that company does with it — apart from keeping you in the loop about the state of your own health — is something you have no control over. While there are regulatory and legislative approaches to what people call ‘big data,’ technical solutions are also needed. Fortunately, this is something blockchain can do.

“We heard a lot about the blockchain in 2017, but 2018 is when we’ll see the first real-world use cases — a necessary stepping-stone to mass-market adoption. The blockchain isn’t the panacea some people make it out to be. It can be difficult to work with from a technical standpoint. But it is incredibly useful when a group of people want to cut out the middlemen. The decentralization inherent to the blockchain creates a type of security that centralized data silos can never deliver. Since protecting the privacy of health records and other medical information is crucial, you could say health data merits blockchain technology.

“Data ownership and privacy are crucial issues. Since individuals are the actual sources of data, we need to return more rights to people. Today, even just acknowledging individuals as the real owners of the data they create is a big step forward.”

“I think people think that health care can be reduced to data and gadgets,” says Jordan Shlain, a physician and entrepreneur. “Everyone thinks that predicting and diagnosing are ‘big.’ But health care is emotional and analog when you get to the substrate: the patient. They must consume data wrapped in anxiety, existentialism, and probability. Decisions on whether to go right, left, forward, diagonal, or nowhere all require time and many questions; some are answerable but most are gray zones that require empathy, expertise, and experience.

“We need to focus on getting the question right before we traverse the rabbit hole of technology solutions in search of human questions. Here is a brief talk I gave on the intersection of empathy, technology, and humanity.”

Disclosure: NEO.LIFE founder Jane Metcalfe is an adviser to Datum.


“Watch the fields of open science and open innovation. I use these terms broadly to encompass the application of open-source principles to the software, hardware, wetware, and policy agreements that underpin the life sciences and biotechnology,” says David Kong, director of MIT Media Lab’s Community Biotechnology Initiative.

“Projects like BioNet, the 10k Genes Project, and the Open Material Transfer Agreement (OpenMTA) from the BioBricks Foundation are fantastic examples of efforts building much-needed infrastructure.

“At the MIT Media Lab we are curating a wonderful collection of open-source fluidic hardware via Metafluidics. Similarly, do-it-yourself (DIY), do-it-together (DIT), and citizen science movements around biology and biotech are growing at a rapid pace. Events like the Gathering for Open Science Hardware and the Global Community Bio Summit are providing forums for these burgeoning global communities to convene and continue their evolution. Open science is coming to a community lab near you — join us today!”