Many of the “big problems” we face in this world — hunger, water, energy, health, climate change — are complex ones that are not going to be solved by any one discipline or industry alone. Solutions to such problems require an integrated and interdisciplinary approach.
As investors, Harris & Harris Group (H&H) looks for potentially transformational companies based on disruptive science. Interdisciplinary science is on the cutting-edge, combining insights from a variety of fields to solve problems that had previously been approached from the narrow perspective of a single domain. But just being interdisciplinary is not enough. We find the best opportunities for early stage investing occur when research in Biology is coupled with breakthroughs in other disciplines.
Biology is a fertile field for investing in interdisciplinary science. Compared to many other disciplines, it lags in the application of molecular-level science and engineering. Electronics, physics, and materials science have been working on the molecular scale for decades, but biology has been somewhat stuck at what I might call the “macro level.” However, biology has rapidly advanced to and embraced molecular understanding. For instance, in the past, all patients would have to wait for physical symptoms of cancer to manifest itself before diagnosis which, in many cases, does not leave many options for treatment, let alone a cure. Today, through molecular genetic analysis, we can, in some cases, determine that someone is at high risk for cancer and treat before it occurs.
The more we understand biology at ever-smaller scales — down to the cell, down to the molecule, down to the atom — the more we can understand what happens when cells interact with non-biological entities. We always knew that cells behaved differently when they interacted with new materials, but we never really understood why. Now we have the tools to understand. Because of this greater understanding, we can now start thinking about using new materials, electronics and engineering to manipulate a single cell into behaving exactly as we want. What we’ve learned over the past 10 years is that cells respond differently to different physical attributes. For instance, it is not just what the object is made of, but also how it is shaped. By shaping or perfectly spacing nano-level features, we see a big difference in how the cells respond.
The advent of BIOLOGY+, or of biology interfacing with other technologies, opens up a world of possible applications, as seen in this figure. BIOLOGY+ Engineering, for example, enables microfluidics, which result in low-cost point-of-care diagnostics. Having the ability to diagnose in real-time during a patient visit allows for a faster response with the correct treatment administered, thereby improving the patient experience, enhancing provider efficiency, potentially lowering costs, and saving lives with quicker delivery of treatment. BIOLOGY+ Material Science enables us to 3D print replacement tissues and organs for use in surgery or drug development.
The full commercial realization of these breakthroughs is still a few years away, but now is the time for the savvy early stage investor to seek opportunities, even if most of these efforts will ultimately fail. Over the last decade, the work has been done in multidisciplinary research centers across the country, with more and more of this BIOLOGY+ technology moving past the learning phase and into the application phase. That’s why H&H devotes so much time talking to the scientists and identifying technologies that are ready to move to the next step in the road to commercial success. We have and will continue to find disruptive science from which to build transformational companies and are most excited about those scientific discoveries that use BIOLOGY+.