Over lunch at Nanobusiness 2006, Steve Jurvetson, VC pioneer in nanotech at Draper, Fisher Jurvetson, really hit the "triple helix" of innovation (what I call the convergence of infotech, nanotech and biotech) on the head.
Jurvetson's company has invested in some of the most promising nanotech companies, in areas as diverse as molecular memory (ZettaCore) to low-cost, plastic based solar material (Konarka). But he focused his remarks on an area right up my (and, I trust, IBM's) alley... the boundless frontier where IT meets biology: in particular, the emerging ability to design and build useful new, sythentic cells, created from scratch from customized DNA.
Scientists have already built simple virus and other structures from the "bottom" up by assembling the organism's DNA letter by letter. But Jurvetson was talking about being able to draw on a vast DNA database to build customized biomachines engineered to produce energy, clean up toxins or pollution and solve other commercial challenges.
Such "life software" is becoming increasingly plausible, especially in the wake (pun intended) of the round the world voyage by Craig Venter (of the Human Genome project fame) to harvest and sequence the staggering diversity of genomes in marine microorganisms, bacteria and viruses.
Venter's new company, Synthetic Genomics, aims to enable the production of such biomemetic (nature imitating), self-assembling cellular factories. One of the first goals is to produce an artificial chromosome engineered to produce hydrogen or ethanol, in ways similar to how living plants turn sunlight into energy by photosynthesis.
This work epitomizes the ways in which lab sciences, such as biology and chemistry, have blurred into information sciences, and how nanotechnology points to a future in which matter will be turned into code, and code into matter.
So here's my epiphany: IBM has enormous skills and decades of expertise innovating information technology. In the last fifteen years, it has developed deep knowledge and a growing portfolio of IP in various areas of nanotechnology. And in only the last five years, IBM has become deeply involved in advancing life sciences and healthcare, one of its most dynamic areas of growth. We have the assets to build the triple helix at hand.
I believe IBM must now find a way to more fully integrate these three strands of opportunity to serve the "mega-innovation" that experts see at the crossroads of info, nano and bio. Moreover, it must find a way to become a global enabler of the ecosystem for this triple helix. Perhaps this mammoth objective could be advanced through a new consulting practice, cross-disciplinary group in Research, or the development of an entirely new set of services or solutions.
Of course, I'm sure that many of my colleagues throughout IBM, who represent the full spectrum of business and technology experts, almost certainly agree that IBM should marshall its resources at this inflection point (and technological convergence) to accelerate these advances. For all I know, such a sweeping initiative may already be on someone's drawing board.
Moreover, such a moonshot would demand the collaboration of many other institutions, companies, universities and governments, and have a global reach.
How could IBMers spark and support such a cross-disciplinary, open, global and collaborative business initiative to integrate IT, nano and bio? How could your external input and insight catalyze such a world-changing meta project to leap from this page to a worldwide reality?
The field is wide open, and so is my interest in hearing your thoughts.
Jack Mason, IBM Strategic Communications, HealthNex Producer