Making a Moonshot Mindset for U.S. Leadership in Biotechnology

By Abigail Kukura

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General-purpose technologies shape the destiny of nations. Francis Bacon remarked how, during the Renaissance, the printing press, gunpowder and the compass “changed the appearance and state of the whole world … first in literature, then in warfare and lastly in navigation.”

We are on the cusp of another era in which not just one, but multiple technologies will transform national security, economy and society.

Three technologies — artificial intelligence, advanced networks and microelectronics — have emerged as major fronts in an international technology competition between democratic and authoritarian systems. This triad of hardware, software and networks is accelerating digital innovation at a rate perhaps never before seen.

However, the U.S. government woke up slowly to the international competition for these technologies. National commissions, congressional appropriations and White House strategies came only after policymakers recognized the intent and focused efforts by the People’s Republic of China to lead the world in these technologies.

Today, the United States has an opportunity to shoot ahead of the target in the next technology battlegrounds. It should start by solidifying its early lead in biotechnology, a general-purpose technology with the potential to transform society. Accelerated by and converging with AI and microelectronics, biotechnology promises the unique opportunity to grow and manipulate the essence of life as we know it.

Obvious application areas include healthcare and pandemic response. But the range of items we can potentially build with biology is truly vast: from biofuels to critical minerals to novel fabrics, metals and construction materials.

The national security stakes of biotechnology leadership are also immense. Biotechnology will offer tools to bioengineer solutions to the most vexing challenges. But it will also carry risks ranging from the security of individuals’ biodata to the global spread of pathogens. What’s more, the nations that lead the world in biotechnology will shape the norms and standards surrounding its development and use.

There are three key technological challenges that nations will have to overcome to establish long-term biotechnology leadership.

First, high-quality data will be an essential input for AI-enabled biotechnology and a limiting factor for the ability to engineer biology.

Second, fundamental understanding of biology is still relatively crude. For biomanufacturing and bioengineering at scale, the nation will need to move from a process of trial and error toward a more reliable and routine engineering paradigm.

Finally, we will need adequate security measures to rapidly identify and respond to biological threats and to mitigate the asymmetric risks that biotechnology tools in the hands of individuals could create.

The good news is that the United States is entering this race with an early lead. America is the top provider of and destination for biotech investment globally, according to capital markets research firm Pitchbook, and is home to the world’s largest number of biotech companies. U.S. allies and partners are also major biotech players, with Europe even outperforming the United States in some biotech patent categories.

But biotechnology’s potential is not lost on U.S. rivals. China has articulated its goal to lead the world in biotechnology by 2035, and is investing heavily to that end. While behind the United States on many metrics, entities like the Beijing Genomics Institute have a commanding lead in the global market for genomic data, feeding a potential Chinese advantage in the data that will be needed to power biotechnology at commercial scale.

The U.S. government has begun to set a vision for biotechnology leadership through recent strategy documents like the White House’s executive order on the bioeconomy and the creation of entities like the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology and the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health.

This is a necessary start. But U.S. leadership cannot be left to chance, and no one corner of the innovation ecosystem will be able to achieve U.S. biotechnology leadership alone.

The United States has a long history of achieving lofty technology endeavors when its innovation ecosystem is focused on a shared, ambitious goal. From the Apollo program — the original “moonshot” — to the Manhattan Project and Operation Warp Speed, it has proven time and again that, with the right concentration of effort and resources, it can raise the technological bar on what was previously considered possible.

The U.S. defense enterprise has been an essential driver of innovation across these examples. It has seeded technological breakthroughs, such as the decade of work on mRNA vaccines at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that Operation Warp Speed was able to build upon. It has also served as a catalyst market, enabling technologies like commercial space flight to scale.

Additionally, given its size and operational capacity, the Defense Department tends to float the U.S. innovation ecosystem on subjects that lack clear departmental leadership elsewhere. While the nation regularly draws upon the power of its defense ecosystem to drive innovation and respond to shocks or crises, today’s international technology competition demands a true whole-of-nation approach.

Bold technology moonshots could help the United States rally its innovation ecosystem to achieve biotechnology leadership and chart the technical path toward unlocking biotechnology’s general-purpose potential.

To this end, the Special Competitive Studies Project recently published a “National Action Plan for U.S. Leadership in Biotechnology.” Developed in consultation with industry and in coordination with the government, the plan offers three technology moonshots that would, if achieved, add up to durable technological advantage in biotechnology through 2030.

It also outlines a vision for the world that these moonshots would enable and articulates the policy variables that we need to get right to realize that future.

Moonshot 1 would address the data challenge. SCSP calls for an “annotated non-human genome project” to secure the data inputs for AI-enabled biotechnology.

Thirty years after the first sequencing of the human genome, still very little is known about the genetic makeup of the world around us. Those sequences contain insights for how we can use biology to build stronger, more resilient materials for myriad purposes. If compiled in one place, nature can be turned into a code base for biomanufacturing. While existing efforts are tackling portions of this puzzle, they exist largely in isolation and many lack the urgency and ambition necessary for an international competition.

A national project to sequence the entire biodiversity of the United States would set an appropriately high bar for the innovation ecosystem to rally around — with plenty of work to go around. What’s more, making that data available open source would raise the baseline bio-awareness across the ecosystem and deny rival ecosystems the ability to accrue an asymmetric data advantage.

Moonshot 2 would be a national effort to create a fully synthetic cell, which would drive a steep change in the ability to engineer biology. Currently, biology is engineered by trying 10,000 different versions of a process and attempting to replicate the version that works. Under this paradigm, it is incredibly difficult to replicate the conditions of experiments and reliably produce the same results, not to mention conduct those bioprocesses at scale. But imagine if biology could be built the way engineers build bridges. To do so, a basic scientific understanding of physics at the cellular level is required.

Building a synthetic cell from scratch would require coordination across multiple interdisciplinary efforts to master the ability to measure, model and make cellular functions. The effort itself would stitch together pieces of the innovation ecosystem that may not otherwise cross paths and lead to promising spinoff opportunities. And its success would help usher in a paradigm of reliable, routine bioengineering more like bridges than guesswork.

Moonshot 3 is to establish a bio­security baseline that allows the nation to step confidently into a future where it has the code base and tools to build with biology.

It should be able to trace bio-risks through global biothreat “radar,” use AI-enabled modeling to facilitate product development and rapidly test and manufacture vaccines and therapeutics. It should use technology to upgrade trial systems and speed up effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of medical solutions to citizens.

These innovations exist across our ecosystem, but they remain ungathered. A 24/7 national Medical Shield that operationalizes pathogen defense would design out the need for a future Operation Warp Speed-type effort. The Defense Department would be well-positioned to lead a full-time interagency effort to develop and execute this NORAD-like command system.

These three moonshots, if achieved, would provide more runway to the United States’ current early biotech lead.

But pure technological leadership alone would be insufficient. There are also several policy variables that we need to get right to ensure biotechnology can diffuse and scale in the ecosystem and align with values. This includes building the infrastructure for distributed domestic biomanufacturing capacity, securing potential bottlenecks in the biotech supply chain and cultivating the talent pipelines for the full range of jobs in the bioeconomy.

It also requires leaning into the collective strength of democracies to set global biotech norms and standards that reflect our values.

Finally, it requires balancing innovation with the appropriate amount of caution when designing regulations or national security guardrails surrounding biotechnology’s development and use.

Whether general-purpose technologies make or break empires depends on a society’s ability to lean into the change. There will be a role for every corner of the U.S. innovation ecosystem in helping lay the groundwork — both technological and in policies — for U.S. biotech leadership.

From startups and mega-cap companies to community colleges and national labs to all levels of the U.S. government as well as like-minded nations, much work lies ahead. The Defense Department can play an outsized role in helping develop and test early-stage biotechnologies, catalyzing commercial markets for proven technologies that are ready to scale and building the infrastructure to ensure that the nation can build with biology at home. ND

Abigail Kukura is an associate director of research and analysis for future platforms for the Special Competitive Studies Project, a non-partisan, non-profit initiative to make recommendations to strengthen U.S. long-term competitiveness.

Topics: Emerging Technologies

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