The exponential increase in data generation and collection over the past half a century has created an immense, undeveloped landscape for entrepreneurial improvements in data driven systems. By leveraging biotechnologies to store, track, and interpret data, the panelists of IndieBio’s Biotechnology x Data event are bringing innovative new products to market.
Read our brief summary of the conversation below or rewatch the event.
From daily life to international trade, data informs decisions in all facets of society. How we collect, verify and analyze this data increasingly matters in a world reliant on data-driven systems. IndieBio founders identified shortcomings within this process and turned to biotechnology to fill these gaps. By exploiting biological storage systems to secure data and by creating analytical tools to help interpret data, the founders are transforming the way data powers our daily existence.
Data plus biology uniquely solve today’s problems
As food systems have increasingly globalized, tracing supply chains with conventional means has become increasingly unreliable. After losing thousands of pounds of lotus seed shipments due to contamination concerns, Vishaal Bhuyan, then CEO of a health snack company, struggled to verify the origin of his product. Pairing an entrepreneurial instinct with knowledge from an introductory biotech course, Bhuyan imagined replacing easily lost and altered packaging labels with biosynthetic microbial ‘tags.’ These tags, by nature of their unique DNA sequences, become molecular trackers, following supply chains across the globe.
“We convert data, digital data, into strands of DNA,” Bhuyan, now CEO of Aanika Biosciences, said. “We insert that DNA into a microorganism and have it hitch a ride on food or agricultural product or really anything within the supply chain.” The microbes are converted irreversibly into spores, which are metabolically inert, nearly indestructible cells that protect the DNA barcode throughout transit. Demand for this technology expands well beyond the food industry into both the pharmaceutical and mineral industries, where product authentication is paramount.
The metamorphosis from the customer to the producer of data-driven products is one that Amal Graafstra, CEO of Vivokey, knows well. After one too many late nights accidentally locked out of the office, Graafstra saw a need for the door to recognize his identity without the burden of managing external identity ‘tokens,’ including keys. “You might lose your keys once a month, or once a year, or never—but you always manage them,” said Graafstra. In order to cheaply, simply, and safely create a managementless replacement, he turned to microchip implants to maintain his data.
The Vivokey cryptographically secure implantable transponders utilize Near-field Communication (NFC) and Radio-frequency Identification (RFID) technology. Vivokey’s products are designed to last up to 50 years and the company partners with body piercers to provide affordable, safe, and widespread access to implants. Unlike those dreamt up by Hollywood movies, the microchips have no tracking capabilities or neural links. The chips are functionally inert outside of the small magnetic field generated by the chip reader.
Data beyond identification: exploring product functionality
What happens when these seemingly inert identification devices are given functionality? At Aanika Biosciences, scientists are exploring adding antimicrobial and probiotic functions to the microbial tags. In this way, the tags will not only provide security, but might enhance the nutritional value and the safety of edible products.
The ability to securely carry specific pieces of information, combined with technologies to measure biomarkers such blood glucose levels, means Vivokey’s technology may be developed to measure aspects of human health. Graftstra foresees Vivokey becoming “the Apple of microchipping,” which is an appropriate comparison given the potential for ubiquitous use of the product.
Looking forwards, Vivokey aims to secure biomedical data, streamlining everyday doctor’s visits with the literal wave of a Vivokey-augmented hand. Not only could the device identify the patient, but it might also collect vital biological information pertinent to the doctor’s treatment plan. Before transforming the microchip from a simple identification device into a medical device, the product must first achieve FDA approval. The Vivokey technology may one day provide patients with complete ownership over their medical history records, bypassing the need to provide insurance cards, social security numbers, and photo IDs every time they enter a new medical office.
Data management for scientists
While the founders at Vivokey and Aanika Biosciences are working to secure data, Adam Kurkiewicz, CEO at Biomage Ltd, provides scientists with the means to manage and analyze large volumes of their own data. The rapid technological advancements in genetics and genomics over the past half a century have transformed biology from a low throughput science to one that produces millions of data points in a single experiment. Biomedical researchers often rely on bioinformatic consultants to help interpret these data, but the founders at Biomage have created a software that will “turn every biologist into a bioinformatician,” said Kurkiewicz.
Biomage’s open-source software platform is currently designed for a specific type of data: single-cell RNA seq data. Clients such as Harvard Medical School employ this software for an array of biomedical applications, such as drug-discovery for cancer treatment. Through access to the open-source platform and customizable additional features, the Biomage Single Cell Platform is providing researchers with ownership over their data and, ultimately, accelerating scientific discovery. To truly develop scalable precision medicine tools, companies like Biomage are needed to enable a customized patient treatment.
The future of data and biotech
One might imagine a future world in which all three of these companies work together to better the human experience. Two people come into the doctor with an upset stomach, fever, and fatigue. With the wave of a VivoKey-implanted hand, both are identified, checked in, and ready to be seen by the doctor.
One leaves with a diagnosis of food poisoning. A doctor scans a stool sample for the Aanika Biosciences microbial tag and a nationwide recall on the contaminated food is set into motion within hours. The other leaves with a diagnosis of cancer. Specialists analyze the tumor cells using the Biomage pipeline and develop a molecular-level treatment tailored to suit the patient’s profile. By engineering solutions for enhanced ownership, security, and analysis of data the founders are bringing us one step closer to this future.