Chafing Against Regulation, Silicon Valley Pivots to Pandemic


Early in the evening on March 19, the prominent Silicon Valley investor and serial entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan kicked off a tweet storm with a techno-libertarian call to arms:

“To all biotech & tech people: The Manhattan Project for the virus is going to end up being the Palo Alto Project. It’s on us. The state doesn’t have tech talent anymore. Can’t fix that overnight. But we can get them to legalize biomedical innovation with expanded right-to-try.”

Srinivasan did not respond to WIRED’S request for comment, but a subsequent tweet clarified that he was using the term Palo Alto Project to encapsulate the world of venture-backed “tech/biotech” companies that he envisions mobilizing to solve the mysteries of Covid-19 with the same awesome resolve with which J. Robert Oppenheimer and company cracked the atom.

In normal times, an exhortation by one of the Valley’s more extreme apostles of technological triumphalism to relax the biotech regulatory process would be dismissed as typical Silicon Valley “move fast, break things, ask forgiveness later” rhetoric. But these are not normal times. Spurred by an existential threat to society, Silicon Valley startups—and biotech companies in general—are pivoting en masse to address Covid-19. As ICU wards desperately expand their capacity to keep up with the influx of patients and death totals mount, the question of whether the regulatory apparatus can keep pace with biotech seems worth asking.

Over the past two decades the rate of biotechnological progress has been nothing short of breathtaking, fueled most notably by a dramatic fall in the cost of sequencing genomic data (faster than Moore’s law), the development of a suite of tools that enable the direct editing and programming of genetic code (namely Crispr-Cas9), and, most recently, the application of big data analytics and machine learning algorithms to our near-infinitely burgeoning databases of biological information. In this new world of so-called synthetic biology, scientists are no longer limited to what nature hands them on a plate.

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We can design, program, and manufacture at scale genetic constructs tailored to do exactly what we want, at a speed unthinkable just a few years ago. Srinivasan is hardly the only observer who sees the challenge of developing treatments, diagnostic tests, and eventually a vaccine for Covid-19 as the perfect opportunity to deploy these new tools. For scientists pushing at the biotechnological frontier, fighting back against the pandemic is a duty they’ve been training their whole lives for.

Srinivasan’s tweet storm included a formidable list of ongoing Covid-19-related tech projects. The roster included synthetic biology startups working on bleeding-edge approaches to antibody discovery and drug manufacturing, two different groups working on coronavirus tests, and a promising potential vaccine in development.

Some of the companies he singled out were nowhere near Palo Alto, and the vaccine development project is actually a collaborative effort between the government and private sector, but Srinivasan’s snapshot of the intersection of biotech, computing, and Covid-19 nevertheless did an effective job of capturing the current moment.

The very first entry on his list, Swiftscale Biologics, a synthetic biology startup founded last year that aims to rapidly mass manufacture antibodies that could be deployed to treat Covid-19 patients, offers an instructive path into both the huge potential of this maturing new world and the regulatory roadblocks that constrain it.

Antibodies are proteins produced by the body’s immune system to target invasive bacteria, viruses, and other malevolent invaders—a home-brewed cure, as it were, for what ails you. As the world waits for a vaccine that could potentially provide prophylactic protection against contracting Covid-19 in the first place, dozens of efforts are underway to locate effective antibodies that could be used in the short term to treat patients who are already suffering from the disease.