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QA: Juan Enriquez: Genomics is the Tongue of the Future

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How did a guy who helped negotiate the cease-fire in 1994 for the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, come to be a leading commentator on the genomics revolution at Harvard Business School? Juan Enriquez’s academic career has been long and winding, but, as he explains it, his segues make great sense.

Enriquez, who first served as the CEO of Mexico City’s Urban Development Corporation and chief of staff for Mexico’s Secretary of State, seven years ago embarked on an academic career at Harvard researching the economies of nation states. What he discovered inspired him to delve deep into the genomics industry. Today he directs the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School, sits on the board of Craig Venter’s new Center for the Advancement of Genomics, and is the author of a bestseller for the mainstream on how genomics is changing the world.

Enriquez’s book, As the Future Catches You, is full of short, incomplete sentences in varying catchy fonts with plenty of pictures. His point: to make genomics digestible to the masses. “Genomics is beginning to change the balance of power of industries and countries, and in the measure that it does so, it should be a debate that brings in an awful lot more people.” He spoke with GT’s Adrienne Burke.

 

Your specialty is economics. How did you wind up as an observer of the genomics industry?

Seven years ago I started looking at different aspects of why countries succeed or fail, and I looked at all the usual variables of privatization, corruption, inflation, government structure, and education. None of those really worked because you have so many outliers. The one thing that did work is which societies became literate in new technologies and languages. I started writing about technology and getting interested in life sciences.

 

And now you’ve started the Life Sciences Project at HBS?

I started that a year ago. Just as digital code started permeating a series of companies and changing the way in which companies and industries did business, I think gene code and life code in general is going to start permeating a series of businesses — it already has — and I think that’s going to change industrial structures globally in a fundamental way. We want to trace how that is happening and what it does.

It’s very hard to think of multimedia mergers — Time Warner, CNN, AOL, et cetera — if all companies weren’t digital and information wasn’t compatible between one and the other. In other words, if you can’t seamlessly send images from a magazine to your cable outfit to your movie outfit, it’s very hard to figure out where the synergies are. There has to be a common language for there to be a common culture. And in the measure that that happened you started seeing some very large restructuring. For instance, it’s hard to merge banks if it’s all paper in files. But in the measure that everything is digitized, it becomes a lot easier to take over a bank in North Carolina.

We’re going to see something similar with life code in the sense that as seed, food, chemical, and cosmetic companies begin speaking the same language they will start interchanging information in the same language and will start having common interests.

 

How will your project monitor that as it happens?

The project has three components. One is the global component. How does gene data spread globally? Who’s using the stuff for what?

The second component is, why are some regions able to use this stuff better than others? Why are you getting tremendous growth in some regions and not in others? Why are regions that should be really good at this not doing as well as they should be, like New York and New Jersey. You would assume that having the concentration of brains and venture capital and pharmaceuticals and labs that it would be one of the centers of the universe.

And the third thing we’re looking at is when information starts flowing specifically through companies, how does that change the company? It turns out that it changes it in fundamental ways. It’s very hard to find aspects of a company that don’t change when you put information into companies. … It’s very hard to find industries that don’t change because you’re changing the dominant language that the planet speaks.

 

Why do you think New York and New Jersey haven’t emerged as genomics hotbeds?

We haven’t put out the paper yet that we’re writing on that. We’ve got a couple hypotheses that we’re exploring.

 

Which countries outside of the US do you see emerging as leaders in this area? There seems to be a lot of news out of India.

India as a whole is unlikely to emerge as a leader but there are certainly regions inside India that could emerge. You probably wouldn’t say India is a leader in IT on a per capita basis, but regions like Bangalore are doing world-class work. There will likely be areas in India that will play in this game. How important they’re going to be is something we’re looking at right now. We’re close to finishing a map of global gene data flow and we’ll see where that takes us.

 

Is there anything you see the US or UK doing or not doing that is putting them at risk of losing their lead in genomics?

There’s been such a battle between the public and private [sectors] over generating and applying information that a lot of the US bioinformatics companies have gone out of business. One of the things this country should be doing is growing and supporting this sector. It’s very dangerous when you get first-tier bioinformatics companies trying to become third-tier pharmaceutical companies. It’s very important that if alive biology is going to become in silico biology, you develop a series of very strong companies that do that.

Part of the ethos in Britain for the past few decades has been, ‘We’ll do great leading-edge science research, but we may not apply this in commercial ways anywhere near as aggressively.’ And that has been very expensive for that country. Now that is beginning to be reversed, but some of the absolutely fundamental discoveries in this field were commercialized elsewhere and it would be dangerous for the US to follow that precedent.

 

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