Rob Carlson is one of the world's leading experts on biotechnology, particularly synthetic biology, and spends a lot of his time analyzing the industry in order to help biotech companies do well in the evolving market.
While many in the field believe that expensive DNA synthesis is the only thing blocking an explosion of the biotech industry, Carlson sees things slightly differently. "If you look at the costs of R&D in biotech companies, you'll see the cost of synthesizing DNA is far outweighed by the sums spent on the rest of the project. It isn't the DNA synthesis that's holding the industry back, but rather the cost rest of the engineering process, and then the cost of scale-up to actually make and ship a product. Beyond the lab and product development, I often find that start-ups haven’t thought the business element all the way through. It's all very well to come up with a great new technology, but how are you going to package it as something that people will buy? You need a story. You need to know from the beginning what the transaction that makes your company profitable will be".
Rob Carlson is a co-founder of Bioeconomy Management, a dynamic company that offers operational expertise, investor relations, and other consulting services to bio companies to help them grow as a business. He is also on the board of directors for a new community bio lab called Hive Bio, and argues that the DIY community is the future of the industry. "Governments need to be funding community bio labs because they are a great source of education and innovation. Every new technology passes through a garage at some point in its development. It was the same for the IT industry and it is the same for biotechnology." Carlson himself set up a lab in his garage back in 2005 after predicting the DIY movement.
One of Carlson's areas of interest is the economics of biofuels. Rethinking how we use biology will eventually help us create biofuels on a global scale. Petroleum plants are huge structures and the whole process of acquiring and burning petroleum does a huge amount of environmental damage, whereas biology can create renewable petroleum in small organisms. We could even develop a machine that takes in crops and produces the petroleum, much like how a cow eats grass and converts it to milk. Carlson calls this the “cowborg”. But the path to that future is uncertain. Increased petroleum supplies are already affecting government mandates for biofuel usage and consequently reducing investment in biofuels. This situation will force society to make a decision: in the near-term, biofuels will be more expensive than petroleum unless we choose to include the environmental costs of petroleum in the price at the pump, and deferring those costs makes the long-term impact of burning petroleum even greater. Carlson argues that the physics and economics of biological production will win out over standard petroleum mining and refining in the long run, but that the competition will continue for many years to come.
One huge factor is the development of cars to be more energy efficient. In the next 10 years, cars will be able to run on half the petroleum currently used and electricity will take a bigger portion of the energy burden. Another factor is that fracking will change global dynamics of the fuel industry, making the USA the largest producer of both petroleum and natural gas. Additionally, other energy sources such as wind and solar energy will continue to be optimized and be able to provide a larger portion of energy needs. In short, we can eventually expect to be consuming much less petroleum and for a lower cost, whether it is taken form nature or created with bio-engineering.