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Q/A: Far-Out Thinker Takes on Genomics

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Nathan Myhrvold, the energetic, admittedly eccentric former CTO of Microsoft, has already conquered industries outside his IT realm. An accomplished Seattle chef and amateur paleontologist, now he’s dipping his toe into the gene pool. Myhrvold recently cofounded Intellectual Ventures in Redmond, Wash., to help early-stage companies, including genome technology startups, with strategy or financing.

Myhrvold, 41, says genomics is on the verge of the same growth curve as the computer industry was at the advent of the Internet. Genome Technology’s Meredith Salisbury spoke with him recently.

We’ve seen a number of people from the computer and software industries crossing over to life sciences. What makes life sciences — genomics in particular — accessible to IT people?

Myhrvold: I’m not sure anything makes it accessible. The thing that makes it intriguing is that biology is becoming an information-rich science. Computing has become a tool for genomics and some other branches of biology. One of the key aspects of shotgun sequencing is that it relies on computers.

If you write the human genome out on three-by-five cards, it’s not terribly useful. Things like the microprocessor and digital communications and the Internet have transformed the computer industry. [They] created a huge industry out of something that was much smaller and changed the lives of millions of people. All of those things are about to happen in biology.

Why now? What are the patterns or indications on which you base this prediction?

Myhrvold: All the biggest and most powerful computer companies were startups. With biotech companies, some company that starts up today will, in a few years, have a market cap that’s big enough to buy a big pharma. The point is that if you have a sufficiently dynamic market, a new entrant can go to the top. Prior to this there’s been a glass ceiling, and they couldn’t go to the top.

The industry will change because there’s a new force: genomics. We have the hope now of having a fundamental understanding of what happens inside the human body. The tools of genomics offer an enormous change in the way people go about this — enormous enough to change everything.

Also, genomics is on the path to have an exponential growth rate, doubling roughly every 18 months. In 29 or 30 years you’re talking about a factor of a million improvement over what we have today. What we need is a factor of a billion improvement — about a billion times more information than we have today. If you look at the cost of sequencing, I think ultimately the cost of sequencing needs to be about a billion times cheaper than it is today.

What kind of business model will be most successful in the genomics field?

Myhrvold: There will be horizontally structured companies instead of the vertical companies in big pharma. In a fast-moving industry it’s really hard to try to be great at everything. I think we’re going to see a lot of business models that involve information, as opposed to getting to a marketable drug.

What’s your role in all this?

Myhrvold: I’m very interested in this area, but I don’t pretend to be an expert. When the computer industry went through this enormous change, it was a combination of people with experience and people with new ideas.

I made a career out of saying things that made people look at me like I’m crazy. A lot of people that are experts are experts in the present, and it’s hard to get them to think of it in a factor of a million out or a thousand out. So I don’t mind doing things that are going to make people think I’m crazy.

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