Why the robot revolution isn’t the only game in town

Entrepreneur Anthony Finbow discusses how advances in knowledge and innovation related to the microbiome is helping drive the new economy, with the microbe as the new unit of currency.

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This is a contributed article by Anthony Finbow, Chief Executive Officer at Eagle Genomics Ltd

There has been a lot of conversation around our ongoing digital and silicon-based revolution, including the ‘rise of the robots’ in the media. However, at least as big a revolution, if not larger, is happening alongside these—the ‘Bio Revolution—one that McKinsey says could have a direct economic impact of up to $4 trillion a year over the next 10 to 20 years.

The Bio Revolution promises to provide some of the most convincing regenerative capitalist answers to our current climate crisis by fuelling a new wave of biology and/or nature-inspired innovation. This concept overlaps with what Klaus Schwab describes as the ‘4th industrial revolution’—a fusing of the physical, digital and biological worlds. And when Boston Consulting Group talks about ‘Nature Co-Design’, it’s to some extent the same or similar mega-trend we’re talking about—a new industrial revolution harnessing nature’s design principles and manufacturing capabilities to produce beneficial new materials from the atomic level up.

One critical component of the Bio Revolution is the microbiome—the ecosystem of microorganisms coexisting within and without our bodies and our environment.

The microbiome: unit of currency for the Bio Revolution

When better understood, microbiome ecology promises to have a very significant impact on our health and wellbeing. In fact, the potential for microbiomes to speed development of innovative medicines, improve global food production and produce industry-leading, sustainable consumer goods is huge.

Despite this great potential however, the complex, multi-dimensional nature of data relating to the microbiome has proven to be a significant challenge, including its manifold networks and interactions with the body. Given the right tools and datasets, combined with more standardised approaches to understanding and gaining insights from data, it will soon be possible to unlock the promise of the microbiome to better support the accelerating Bio Revolution.

Due to historically poor data curation and management processes that don’t comply with current FAIR data practices, another challenge faced is that far too many research environments are inefficient in their processing and management of data. They rely on outmoded technology and suffer from excessively deferred change processes. This has led to a marked decrease in the rate of innovation, as well as wasted time and effort associated with incessant data wrangling, unreliable reproducibility and unnecessary, resource-draining replication of experiments, in addition to processes that do not readily transfer or scale-up to further stages of development. To make the Bio Revolution work, we need this to change.

The fortunate news is that change is already here.

Allowing consumers of complex data to visualise and contextualise promising patterns

The complexity of ‘multi-omics’ data management requires technology and platforms that can handle large volumes of information, process it, and provide valuable outputs. Such platforms must enable consumers of data, be they scientists, data scientists, product marketers, researchers, members of legal and compliance, and line of business owners, to quickly see how complex data can be productively applied and translated into innovation.

To respond to this growing demand, an industry of multi-omics and real-world data management software has arisen to meaningfully understand and apply complex data. R&D teams in science-focused industries are generating agricultural innovation and environmental sustainability and renewal through the use of data fabrics, for example. Fit-for-purpose data fabrics ensure comprehensive sets of microbiome-related data are available and can be exchanged, compared and understood in meaningful ways by non-data scientists. Gartner, the analyst firm, has made a number of important predictions about fit-for-purpose data fabric features as the demand for complex analytics grows.

Another key tool, perhaps unsurprisingly, is artificial intelligence (AI), which can help decode patterns that might not be obvious to human observers without this type of support. Finally, advanced application of the causal inference programming approach is proving highly effective to microbiome researchers, as a valuable way to pick out associations in diverse data, allowing scientists to design new studies to delve deeper into root cause analysis. Causal inference work and network science therefore delivers great potential for understanding the environmental role of the microbiome.

From little acorns...

I am the first to admit that the microbiome industry is only now starting to accelerate. What encourages me, other companies and investors entering the field is the fact that other early-stage industries that leverage data effectively have moved on to deliver great rewards that have benefited both the economy and wider society. Examples include small molecule drug discovery and semiconductor process and product development.

What got these industries off the ground, and what will also help the unfolding microbiome industry, is how each moved quickly to help customers through swift agreement on common standards, best practices, and sophisticated tools. In a similar fashion, improved understanding of the microbiome is set to significantly contribute to our understanding of biology, and will ultimately translate to a better quality of life for all. To get there, a deep, data-driven partnership between science and technology is needed that not only drives, but reinvents, science as we know it. And in our own modest way, we think that we’re making that kind of change start to happen.

Anthony Finbow is Chief Executive Officer at Eagle Genomics Ltd, a Cambridge-based pioneer in applying network science to biology. It is working with 5 of the top 10 household and personal care companies in the world to create new products working in harmony with the human and environmental microbiome. Explore this analysis of microbiome trends from Eagle Genomics and 20/15 Visioneers in greater detail in The New Frontier: Unlocking the Opportunities of the Microbiome