Q&A: Juan Enriquez, futurist, on the intersection of science, business and society

Enriquez explains why our great-grandchildren will be considering the possibilities of extra-solar human life.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

Growing up in Mexico, Juan Enriquez didn't consider new discoveries and scientific innovations particularly important. But now, after a circuitous route from a student at Harvard University to a Mexican peace negotiator and back to Harvard as founder of the business school's life sciences area, Enriquez stands at the forefront of some of the most fascinating innovations in life sciences today.

An active speaker and writer who serves as managing director of Excel Medical Ventures, a venture capital firm, and CEO of Biotechonomy, a life sciences research and investment firm, Enriquez spoke with me recently about why countries appear and disappear, understanding the language-of-life code and the possibility of extra-solar human life. Below are excerpts from our interview.

You're the managing director of a venture capital firm, the CEO of a firm helping to fund new genomics work and an active speaker and writer. What's your educational background?

I grew up in Mexico. I never had science mentors. No one told me why I should be paying attention to entrepreneurs and new discoveries. I came to Harvard and focused on how to change the governance in Mexico. I went to work in Mexico, then came back here for business school. Then I had an opportunity to run Mexico City's Urban Development Corporation. I became deputy Secretary of State, then a peace negotiator. I eventually came back to academia and began thinking about why countries appear and disappear.

It wasn't until I started thinking about that almost 20 years ago that I started to focus on science and technology. I began understanding that countries that succeed have the ability to adopt and adapt to new technologies. India is successful today because it has educated tens of thousands of brains at the highest level in digital code. That's turned the country into the second-largest producer of computer code on the planet. It's this ability to adopt and adapt to new technologies.

Then I began studying an obscure field called genomics, which almost didn't exist. I could read the entire field on my dining room table -- and I did. I started writing and some of my articles got picked up. Eventually, I founded the life sciences area at the Harvard Business School and mapped how the ability to read and write gene code changes the world economy. I started founding companies out of this and ended up in venture capital.

What does your work life look like on a typical day?

I spent part of last week in Singapore and Japan. Tomorrow, I'll be in Austin, then the Silicon Valley and Boston and London. There are so many interesting things happening in the world. There are so many interesting companies and discoveries. The biggest chunk of what I do is listen and learn. I go places and find smart people and try to figure out what they're working on that's creative or interesting or important. Sometimes I get ideas and sometimes I get business opportunities. Sometimes there are companies to be founded or created and sometimes there are existing companies to be supported.

What's your mission?

I want to help change the world in a positive direction. Technology is a powerful tool to do that. If we can use synthetic biology to create a new field, we can alter energy or food production or chemical production or information storage. It's a powerful instrument. I was lucky enough to co-found Synthetic Genomics. We now have instruments available that can make the entire U.S. flu vaccine for an emerging pandemic in less than a week. That could make a huge difference if we ever do have a pandemic.

We're working on a therapeutics company and we think -- we may be wrong on this -- it'll generate a new therapeutic class of medicines. It's not a medicine or a molecule that attacks one niche disease. It's a technology that allows you to keep the shape of peptides in such a way that you can drug the insides of cells. We hadn't been able to do that before. The impact of that is you can attack some of the fundamental cancer targets. You can change the effectiveness and time of effectiveness of medicines. You can create medicines, thousands of new medicines, for new conditions. That could be a field as large as the whole biotech field.

In your book, As the Future Catches You, you write that the dominant language and economic driver of this century would be genetics. What will that look like?

When I was in high school or college, I wish someone had taken me by the hand and said, 'I'm glad you speak English, Spanish and French, but you have to start speaking ones and zeroes. Even though this seems very obscure, let me explain why this is going to be important.' Almost at the same time, you had kids like Bill Gates living in nearby Harvard dorms doing precisely that. Those who took the time to understand that language early created absolutely enormous economies and companies. What I hope to do with my teaching and talking is to explain why this language of being able to read and write life code is going to be important for every aspect of life.

We went from a 6 percent digital world in 1986 to a 99 percent digital world today. In the same way, we're going to go from a world that sees life sciences as a niche, pharmaceutical, medical thing a fundamental driver of how we make, store and process everything. I'm not just talking about food and medicines. I'm talking about information and even things as obscure as how we colonize another planet, how we get out of the solar system. The long-term vision for humanity and human life span is going to depend on reading and writing life code.

What are the trends in this area? What will people be thinking about over the next years and decades?

The short-term answer is the evolution of the bio-economy. That's beginning to happen in aggressive ways. With MIT and Boston University and Harvard Medical School, Boston alone is going to generate fundamental change in discovery, but also in how economies grow, what new companies look like and what people are working on. This is generating entirely new fields. When I was in college, the field of genomics didn't exist. When I started studying genomics, the field of proteomics (how proteins work) almost didn't exist. Now we're beginning to ask questions like where does life come from? Can you code life in mirror images? Can you wrap DNA in the opposite direction to create entirely new parallel life forms? Can you create a code that takes a single cell and makes every organ in the body? It's not just interesting intellectually. You can also being to cure things you hadn't been able to cure.

In the medium-term, you're going to have an enormous life sciences-driven economy in the same way you now have an enormous digital economy. It's not just the fields of research that will be big, but the companies that come out of that field of research will be large. You're already seeing that. Forty-two percent of DuPont's earnings and 14 percent of General Electric's earnings come out of life sciences and health care. You're getting these shifts, not just in startups, but in large, existing companies. Entire nations' economies will be significantly dependent on things like life sciences.

In the long-term, we're going to fundamentally alter the human species. That's happened some 30 times before, but we're going to do it much faster. We're going to have many variants of humans as opposed to a single variant. We're going to identify genes that are positive and negative. We're going to ask ourselves the rules for altering embryos. Some answers are easy. If you have a Huntington's disease gene, it's a death sentence. If you could isolate and remove a Huntington's gene, you'd probably do it. It gets far more complicated when you get into genes related to things like athletic ability. We're going to have different ethical, moral and religious questions and frameworks that are disruptive. Eventually this will allow us to conceive of human lifespan in such a way that we'll be able to colonize not only other parts of the solar system, but maybe even conceive of lifespans or generations long enough to go extra-solar. The only conceivable way in which we could leave the solar system is fundamentally altering this equation of sex-to-birth equals 10 months. We're going to get glimpses of how to do that by the time our great-grandchildren are around.

What about your work worries you? What keeps you up at night?

I sleep pretty well. You can always see risks and be afraid. There are often people in a society that will misuse stuff. But on the whole, I tend to be an optimist. In the last 30 to 40 years, we've taken almost one-third of humanity out of poverty. We've educated almost one-third of humanity. We generate an excess of calories. We're starting to deal with some of the major pollution issues in big cities. We've generated large economies in a series of places. If you're born at random in this world, you're far better off this decade than you were last. But that's not a given. We have to keep fighting for this kind of progress and we're more and more able to do that.

Photo of Juan Enriquez by Jeff Thiebauth

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards