The Lunch-Eating, Helping Hand Effect of Open Biotech

What are the effects of a large and energetic open development community on an industry? What happens when tens of thousands of people start making their products available for free, sharing data, designs, and improvements openly, and making money for services and expertise rather than through selling protected secrets? Fortunately we don't have speculate on this topic: we know. Look at the software industry, which is presently more vibrant and accomplished than it has ever been, whilst a large proportion of the most important software used around the world is open, freely shared, and constructed by a mix of professional and amateur contributors. Open source software is big business and that community gets things done.

Why is this relevant? It is relevant because what happens in software today will happen in biotechnology tomorrow. The tools and techniques of biotechnology continue to fall in price, and the knowledge of how to use them is already spread widely beyond the ivory towers in which it originated. I'll note two interesting effects of a future large and bustling open development community in biotechnology: if you're managing a company that's in the business of biotech, then the open community will (a) constantly threaten to eat your lunch, and (b) help you and your employees be far more productive.

Lunch-eating first. You can see this happening most clearly in the software world for databases, I think. Low-end databases are now a free product, even those that were once lines with licenses that sold for large sums of money. There is no market in software licenses for databases sold to small organization, because extremely good databases are free, reliable, and well known, thanks to the open source software community. The companies that produce databases have been driven out of the realm of low-hanging fruit and onward to achieve ever more challenging goals - to produce database products that can do things than were never done before, because there's no longer a market in doing what has been done.

This process of lunch-eating will continue: there is no point at which a database company will not have its present business model threatened by the inexorable progress of the open source development community. As soon as a company proves that a particular technical feat can be achieved, it is only a matter of time before that feat is replicated in a free database system.

In the near future, exactly this process will take hold for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. The growth of a large and well connected garage biotech / open biotech community will mean that new advances are reverse engineered and added to a growing repertoire of openly published methodologies - available to any group willing (or far enough away) to deal with the intellectual property issues. It will drive the for-profit producers and innovators onward and upward far faster than if their heels weren't being nipped.

And we all benefit from this. Faster progress and better results are far more important than letting a small number investors and employees have an easier time of it.

But onto the second effect, the helping hand. A company might have its lunch eaten at the low end of its market, but at the same time it benefits enormously from the fruits of the open development community. When good tools and the knowledge needed to use them are freely available, the cost of doing business falls: it becomes possible to achieve greater goals with the same level of investment. If you don't have to spend as much on the foundations and basic tools of the trade, then more of an investor's money is available for work on the cutting edge.

Thus an open development community enables far greater and more active innovation in the for-profit section of a field, and one of the ways it does this is by reducing the cost required for any given project to get started. A thriving open development community means that more people know how to accomplish foundational work, leading to easier hiring processes, and the tools for that work might well be free, or the next thing to it.

The wise investor or leader embraces an open development community - but as we've seen in the field of software development, that only happens after a period of trying to shut it all down. Large business are in the business of protectionism first and foremost, and they won't hesitate to co-opt the government in order to step on threats to their present status quo and income. They will do this regardless of how self-evident it is that an open development community benefits everyone, and regardless of how self-evident it is that trying to do this only hurts themselves in the long term.

Open development communities treat legal barriers as damage and route traffic and efforts around them - they are far less limited by geography and jurisdictions than large businesses, and are can react far more rapidly and effectively to threats or changing circumstances. At the same time, the economic benefits provided by open development are so large that they are hard for established closed development groups to resist forever. From the evolution of the software development community - open and closed - over the past few decades, we can see that open development essentially wins in the end, and those who stand in the way either destroy themselves or relent and join the party.

Again, this is the future of biotechnology - the next twenty years in garage biotech are loosely analogous to the period lasting from 1975 to 1995 in software development. It'll be an interesting ride. For my part, I see lunch-eating and the helping hand as very important underpinnings to the Vegas Group project. There isn't enough in the way of nipping at heels going on in the arena of longevity science, which is why we see potential technologies lying fallow, even though there are regions of the world in which they could be aggressively developed. The more reverse engineering and spreading of knowledge that takes place, the better, to my mind: everyone wins in the end with this as a fundamental force in the broader development community.

Pushing change through the FDA is a glacial and very expensive process of lobbying - a political process, naturally, which must be well lubricated with money that would be far better spent on research. This is what it is: essentially corrupt, utterly hostile to progress, a system in which the incentives are for regulators to cause delay and obstruction. .... I don't believe that we can afford to wait for the additional ten years or however many years it requires to win that fight, however. Not if there are other options on the table that may enable us to move faster. The Vegas Group approach is one such option: take the knowledge and techniques published by the research community into open biotech communities and overseas laboratories for further development, work them up to a level at which people are comfortable with the risks, and try them out. You get things done by getting things done.

I hope you're right, but I'll believe this when I see it...
DIY exists in many sectors but it's only in software where it has had any real commercial significance.

Posted by: Will Nelson at May 10th, 2011 9:14 AM

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