You'll Most Certainly Get Brain Cancer, But We'll Help You Cure It

I go through online shopping phases. When I am in the United States there's not a lot of options for things with fast shipping and so I tend to default to Amazon. They make life easy, so I just go with them. Here in Korea we have options. Normally I would go with GMarket. Recently, a lot of our clients have been asking us to source hardware for them. I've spent a disproportionately large amount of time on Alibaba in the last few months. That means I find myself on AliExpress all the time now.

Since I'm always sourcing hardware, I get lots of recommendations for technology products. Today, something caught my eye. Something strange.

It was a really weird cell phone. A really tiny cell phone.

It isn't much bigger than your finger, but still has room for a SIM card. I doubt that the battery lasts for more than a few minutes. Then again, it doesn't have a screen to suck the battery power.

I was shocked at how tiny this thing is. I wondered how anyone would even use it. And then I looked closer. It is an earpiece! A cellphone that you jam directly into your ear!

I'm sure that people who use it will get brain cancer. I'm sure we're all going to get brain cancer from our Bluetooth headphones and holding our cell phones up to our heads for the last two decades. But I'm also sure that the same principles that were used to develop this phone are the principles that will save us from that brain cancer when it comes. You, dear reader, are the person who will save us.

But we will get to that in just a moment.

Alibaba is the dollar store for technology. But it's more than that. It is the symbol of movement toward the freedom to give it a try.

For years I ran a software development agency. Plenty of people came to us and wanted to take a shotgun approach to building apps for the App Store. They wanted to develop five or six applications and let the market decide what they should pursue.

This is a difficult proposition because each app represents a startup. Each startup needs a certain degree of marketing before people will pay attention to it. Without a sufficient volume of traffic then you can't tell whether or not people care about what you're doing. It's just not statistically significant. It's just background noise. You might think you've produced a dud, when really you've only been speaking to people who aren't in your target audience.

There's still value in the shotgun approach. I'm fond of quoting the double Nobel prize winner, Linus Pauling, who said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas”. The shotgun approach isn't so much about letting the market decide. It's much more about letting the creator decide. It's an opportunity for the creator to fall in love with one of his or her own creations.

It's easy to do the shotgun approach in software. It's become much easier to do this in hardware. In media production, it's dead simple.

What if there was a way to do this for biotech?

Keep that in the back of your mind while we discuss why this is so simple in so many areas.

Andreesen Horwitz popularized the phrase “software is eating the world”. All of the important parts of a software stack are now commoditized. You don't write your own programming language. You pick one that fits. You don't write your own user interfaces from scratch. There are toolkits, abstractions layered upon more abstractions. At this point, you don't even write your own hard algorithms. You train someone else's toolkit with your data. You let someone else's machine learning algorithms take the pilot seat.

Once upon a time there was a time when you had to write your own programming language. You had to write your own 3-D engine if you wanted to create a game. If you wanted to have users that were shared between instances of webpage and on a mobile app, you had to create your own server software. Now we just buy a license for Unity or login to Firebase.

It is easier now than at in any other time in human history to launch a software product that is cross platform, and has network functionality.

It's not just software. It's media.

I was at the Grand Canyon a few months ago. I was walking with friends and we saw a little girl who was talking to her cell phone. She was about six years old. We didn't think anything of it until we heard her say, “Be sure to click like, and don't forget to subscribe!”

The barriers are coming down.

I recently saw a documentary special where a gentleman wanted around the markets of Shenzhen. In just two or three hours he assembled a brand-new Android phone from components he was able to source at a market. There are markets in the world where you have easy access to hardware components, 3-D printing, and access to the know-how to put those together.

If you want to launch a new cell phone brand, you can. Your flagship phone can rival that of a flagship phone from four years ago, you can. Recently, when traitorous individuals decided to sell technology secrets they had stolen from Samsung to Chinese companies, a newspaper reported that Samsung had a nine month lead on display technology over Chinese manufacturers. They said nine month gap represented approximately a $100 billion gap in development.

We measure market advantages in months, not years. Everything is moving very quickly.

The barriers are coming down.

What are the barriers in biotech development?

Certainly there are regulation barriers. Software companies focusing on bioinformatics, sometimes known as gold biotechnology, push up against these barriers – CMS regulations and HIPPA. Pharmaceutical companies, focusing on red biotechnology, have to deal with the FDA.

Knowledge barriers are a major problem. To be able to do much of the research and development connected to biotech, you need to know quite a bit of medicine, chemistry, and various fields of biology.

Access to tools is a major issue. If you want to experiment with an ultrasound, that will set you back tens of thousands of dollars.

Or will it?

I recently had an inpatient ultrasound done at a hospital in Seongnam, just south of Seoul. The ultrasound was a handheld diagnostic tool that connected to an iPad mini. It was a mere fraction of the cost of traditional computer-on-wheels ultrasound devices.

Some of the barriers are coming down.

Software and hardware innovations are eating away at the previously impenetrable research and development barriers to entry held by incumbents.

Skyrocketing medical costs in some jurisdictions are eating away at the legal regulations that formerly defended incumbents.

Young biology students have greater access to wet labs, provided by forward thinking venture capital groups. This is democratizing access to that which only corporations, hospitals, and universities could provide.

Quietly, coalitions of venture capital, governments, forward thinking hospitals, and the truly innovative corporations of the world are forming. They are beginning to build the frameworks on which a generation of entrepreneurs will build abstractions.

These hospitals know that the end is coming for their traditional systems. They know that disruptive competitors are about to eat their lunch. They are looking to ride the first wave democratized startup creation in biotechnology.

There's plenty of open space in which to build these frameworks.

What is the biotech equivalent of the Unity game engine? What are the tools that will allow college undergraduates to build novel and useful medical devices easily and rapidly?

What is the biotech equivalent of YouTube? What is the tool that will allow high schoolers to experiment with protein folding, and run computational drug design simulations?

Innovation is coming, but there's certainly plenty of space for you to explore even now.

Lorenzo Swank
Entrepreneur in Residence and Venture Partner

Serial entrepreneur, computer scientist, and amateur eletronic violinist, currently working to level up my skills by collaborating with other entrepreneurs on early stage ventures.