Innovation Timeline. From banks and oil to the digital world, from software to biology
With thousands of selfies with admirers, mass talks and a vertiginous media tour, Vitalik Buterin, one of the creators of Ethereum, the second most valuable cryptocurrency in the world, toured Buenos Aires weeks ago like a rock star. But when the crypto celebrity was asked what changes he is most excited about for the future, Vitalik did not allude to blockchain or decentralization projects: “I think that in the next 70 years we are going to see as much evolution in biotechnology as in the last 70 we saw in computing. I wonder what the equivalent in this field will be of an evolution between the Eniac (the first computer) and the latest iPhone,” he said.
He is not the only investor or entrepreneur who thinks this. Marc Andreessen, a technologist from the West Coast of the United States, in 2011 made a famous prediction: “Software is eating the world”. At that time, the most valuable companies in the world were banks, oil companies or infrastructure firms: ten years later they were replaced by companies from the digital world. Andreessen’s fund now proclaims that “biology eats the world”, and that 2020-2030 will be the great decade of this sector.
During the pandemic, the most impactful innovation stories had to do with health: the vaccines created in record time or the disruptive technology of messenger RNA, behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. But the so-called “life sciences” involve a much broader territory than that of health, and encompass food, energy, infrastructure, and initiatives to moderate or reverse climate change, among others. In this sense, they are what are known in the innovation literature as “general purpose technologies” that impact all sectors of the economy (electricity or the internal combustion engine in the past, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet, decentralization or quantum computing in the present and future).
In fact, one of the most important milestones of the last year of artificial intelligence had to do with the “life sciences”: A DeepMind project, a Google group company, managed to defeat the best biologists in the world with AI in a protein structure prediction contest.
The good news for Argentina is that it is a sector less dependent on capital (than AI or quantum) and more dependent on good researchers, where the country has a stellar tradition (record of Nobel prizes in the region), present and future. The case of Raquel Chan is representative of this vast ocean of talent. According to official data, there are some 220 biotech companies in the country, but the number is probably falling short because there are small start-ups that are under the radar.
The other big reason to pay attention to this agenda is that it’s about disruptions that can fully impact the productive matrix of Argentina, very focused on natural resources, especially agribusiness. How much time is left before “anything can grow anywhere” (soybeans in the Sahara or the Arctic, for example)? “We analyzed several projects to cultivate in the Sahara and the numbers are surprisingly good,” says Alexis Caporale, of the World Fund, the world’s largest climate investment fund, to LA NACION. On a scientific level, the horizon may be less than three years: Then, it can take several years or decades for it to be profitable and scale. But for an economy now dramatically dependent on the $500 value of soybeans, it’s a story worth following closely.